So far UMass president Marty Meehan has not weighed in, and UMass chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, when asked, simply referred journalists to a statement he made in January 2014. In that statement, Subbaswamy confirmed UMass’s opposition to all academic boycotts, including BDS, saying that they ‘undermine the fundamental principles of free expression and inquiry that are central to our mission of teaching, research and service’. By merely referring to his old statement, while the champions of the resolution are touting a misleading ‘95 per cent’ majority, Subbaswamy dodged his responsibility to exercise leadership on this issue. Could he be intimidated?
Meanwhile, New York University’s graduate-students’ union last week voted 66.5 per cent in favour of a BDS motion calling on the university to divest from and boycott Israeli institutions, and to shut down its Tel Aviv programme. NYU president Andrew Hamilton’s response was firm: ‘A boycott of Israeli academics and institutions is contrary to our core principles of academic freedom, antithetical to the free exchange of ideas, and at odds with the university’s position on this matter, as well as the position of [the graduate-students’ union’s] parent union. NYU will not be closing its academic programme in Tel Aviv, and divestment from Israeli-related investments is not under consideration. And to be clear: whatever “pledges” union members may or may not have taken does not free them from their responsibilities as employees of NYU, which rejects this boycott.’
It is heartening that Hamilton and Subbaswamy are resisting the political fads of the day – Hamilton stoutly, and Subbaswamy at least in principle. Adhering to the ideals of intellectual freedom ought to be the first job of a college leader. The University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee report puts it well: ‘[The university] cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who does not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.’
It is inappropriate for a university to play an activist role precisely because doing so takes away individuals’ freedom to advocate for beliefs they personally hold. Again, the Kalven Committee report puts it eloquently: ‘The neutrality of the university as an institution arises, then, not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.’
The graduate students and faculty members supporting BDS need to understand this. But understanding is not enough. Many of these academics do not care whether minority views are censured. They care only about enforcing top-down groupthink in accordance with their own views. Certainly if the ideology was on the other side of the political spectrum (a resolution in favour of, say, boycotting gay weddings), faculty would begin to worry about minority views.
When it comes to compelling their institutions to take up causes such as BDS, graduate student unions have little leverage. They do have the power of persistent pressure, to which we’ve seen college presidents bow over and over again when faced with other illiberal demands, such as those of the student protesters at the University of Missouri, Brown and Georgetown, or the fossil-fuel sitters-in at UMass and Yale. The immediate effect of the UMass BDS resolution was to embolden faculty members who are eager to join the bashing of Israel.
For now, NYU and UMass administrators aren’t caving to the pressure on the BDS front. But college presidents everywhere will need a solid foundation of core principles if they are to resist these hurricane winds of self-righteous outrage in the future.
Ashley Thorne is executive director of the National Association of Scholars.
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