In December 2013, the membership of the American Studies Association (ASA), by a 2-1 margin, voted to approve the ASA National Council’s earlier decision to support a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. According to statements made by the ASA National Council, the decision to boycott was made in response to Israeli violations of international law and the impact that Israeli policies have on Palestinian scholars and students. Supporters of the boycott celebrated the vote as a possible tipping point for Palestinian rights on American campuses and in academic associations. In addition, many believe that the ASA decision propelled the current Modern Language Association (MLA) resolution calling for the US State Department to contest purported denials of entry to American scholars visiting the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Conversely, reaction by critics of the ASA boycott was sharp and swift. Commentators, such as Alan Dershowitz and Jeffrey Goldberg, took to major news outlets to criticize the decision and more than 100 presidents of American higher education institutions denounced the boycott. Furthermore, at the time of this writing, five institutions (Bard College, Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg) have rescinded their membership in the ASA.
A core criticism of the boycott put forth by opponents, particularly by university administrators, is that the boycott undermines academic freedom because it effectively bars the free exchange of ideas between ASA members and Israeli institutions. As the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) noted in their condemnation of the ASA boycott, the vote “represents a setback for the cause of academic freedom.” Within the higher education environment, academic freedom is ostensibly a central principle that guarantees the unrestricted exchange of ideas and information. In many respects, the entire academic enterprise – particularly in respect to research – is a predicated on a relatively unconstrained examination, dissemination and deliberation of concepts, phenomena and effects. Yet over the past two decades, the basic notion of academic freedom has been more and more under threat as academic institutions and governments have increasingly sought to restrict the speech, teaching, research and analysis of university faculty.
Examples of this include the social media restrictions placed on faculty at theUniversity of Kansas, institutional interference in course content at theUniversity of Colorado at Boulder and Minneapolis Community and Technical College, possible corporate intrusion in online course material at Rutgers University, and the suspension of research into literacy levels of athletes at theUniversity of North Carolina. In each of these cases, the academic institution clearly endeavored to curb the speech, teaching or research of a faculty member simply because it was controversial and/or threatened to generate negative press for the institution. Yet despite the potentially grave consequences to the unrestricted exchange of ideas, there was virtually no public or institutional outcry over these assaults on academic freedom.
A distinction appears to have emerged defining those infringements of academic freedom that are permissible and those that are not. While the underlying politics of the issue may be a contributing but not a root factor, rather, the defining element seemingly is whether the restriction bears the imprimatur of a formal institution. The implication is that institutions may curtail academic freedoms with relative impunity so long as they do so to protect their reputation in and share of the higher education market. Conversely, individuals and associations acting without an institutional endorsement are supposedly violating academic freedom principles in a manner that is functionally different and more highly inappropriate.
This raises the following question: If the individual scholar or an association of scholars is motivated to engage in actions that undermine academic freedom out of some sense of social, political or economic injustice in the world, is this somehow more inappropriate than limiting academic freedoms to avoid bad press? Furthermore, even some of the most strident critics of the ASA boycott acknowledge that, at times, acts that weaken the principle of academic freedom may be necessary in order to correct larger problems. The AAUP readily acknowledges that
If such a caveat is acknowledged as a possible necessity within a principled and reasonable protest against academic freedom infringements, this then leads to the underlying question: Can the activist scholar boycott?
As one who works regularly with both Palestinian and Israeli scholars, who will not participate in the ASA boycott, and who is unconvinced that such a boycott is the correct strategy, I strenuously defend a scholars right to engage in principled activism. Lost in the rancor and recriminations surrounding the ASA decision was a more broad conversation surrounding whether a scholar has the right to take a position of conscious and engage in activism that may in fact violate the notion of academic freedom. Clearly there is a conventional view that demands scholars and scientists conform to an unrealistic standard whereby every subject is approached from an unbiased, dispassionate and ultimately sterile perspective. However, such a view of scholars and scholarship is not rooted in reality.
As scholars, part of our academic freedom lies in the ability to not only engage in contentious debate or pursue provocative research but also to take controversial actions and positions. Few people knowledgeable of the inner workings of higher education would contend that academic freedom is a sacrosanct and inviolable dictum that governs the academy. In reality it is a principled ideal that attempts to thwart the excesses of control in the process of knowledge production and consumption. In instances where the unfettered construction and communication of ideas is in jeopardy, institutions, such as those identified earlier, pose a serious hazard to the notion of academic freedom and must be challenged due to the institutional nature of the control. Boycotts by individuals and associations, on the other hand, do not offer the same potential chilling effect on academic discourse and in the “marketplace of ideas”.
Rather, prohibiting the individual from enacting their opposition to objectionable policies and practices is the greater affront to academic freedom. In fact, the activist scholar is a role that should not be opposed but supported by principled institutions and scholars that may not necessarily agree with the methods or message in question. Ultimately, a process that allows a scholar to maintain their ability to be an activist increases the significance and power of academic freedom for all scholars.