On Academic Freedom

Recently, several disciplinary scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association (ASA), have called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, arguing that those institutions are complicit in Israel’s violation of the human rights of Palestinians. I have heard from a number of Wellesley alumnae and others about the ASA’s decision, and about the response from many American colleges and universities who have rejected that stance.

More than 150 college presidents have issued statements rejecting the boycott. In addition, a few presidents have withdrawn or threatened to withdraw their American Studies Association memberships. Many political and pressure groups have started email campaigns for and against the boycott.

As I explained in 2007, when I signed a petition as one of 400 presidents opposing a similar boycott at that time, boycotts of academic institutions by other academic institutions are fundamentally at odds with academic freedom. I rejected the boycott of Israeli scholars in 2007; I reject the similar boycott today. On the first of the year, I placed a statement to that effect on my President’s Page on the Wellesley website and added Wellesley to the list of academic institutions rejecting the boycott.

I firmly believe that presidents of colleges and universities should not take political stances, given that we are the public representatives of diverse intellectual communities that contain members with a wide variety of political and ideological views.

I have taken a stand on this issue because the boycott attacks the core of the academy—it violates our fundamental principles. My response, therefore, is made on moral and ethical grounds, not on political grounds.

The Bad Use of a Good Tool

I am disappointed and wondering if I should be worried.

Democratic society is enhanced when people hammer out solutions to difficult issues through discourse and compromise. Democracy is tarnished when, instead, people hammer at their opponents instead of confronting their ideas. The latter is how I see the recent Freedom of Information Act requests directed at particular faculty at the University of Wisconsin. One political party in Wisconsin filed for all the emails of a prominent historian just two days after he questioned the actions of the party on his blog. Last week, the UW Chancellor wrote an eloquent and inspiring response to the request.

My disappointment stems from the fact that because our population is far more educated now than ever before, I had hoped that the tactic of assaulting the speaker—rather than the content of the speech—would not have as much traction today as it did in the past. Yet it is educated people who are perpetrating this assault on reasoned discourse.

The Freedom of Information Act is an important democratic tool. It is always disheartening to see it used to challenge academic freedom. Academic freedom is specifically intended to allow free and wide-ranging inquiry even into topics that upset powerful people in our society. It serves an important purpose in a good society; it is worrisome to have to wonder whether academic freedom is imperiled by partisan assaults. I hope that responsible citizens will recognize the societal value of free inquiry and speak up.

I also hope that not a single member of our faculty will be dissuaded, even in the slightest, from continuing to pursue their intellectual passion wherever it leads them.