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The key to preventing academic boycotts successes in the future

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The key to preventing academic boycotts successes in the future

By EDWARD S. BECK, jpost.com, Jan. 6, 2014

To be reactive may well be to be too late; being vigilant and proactive is the only way to ward off these attacks on academic freedom.

The good news is that approximately 60 colleges and universities from around the country have had their administrations committee to not participating in academic boycotts as a reaction to the recent academic boycott resolutions of the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the Asian American Studies Association. The bad news is that there are well over 3,500 colleges and universities in the United States alone that have not spoken out on this issue.

Moreover, there are hundreds of academic and professional affinity groups where faculty are independently active, and via which they make reputations for themselves through publications in journals and association leadership. These associations are the currency of the realm for academics, where peer review and politics reign supreme.

These association set standards for curricula, program accreditation and publications which are accepted by colleges and universities as standards for their program offerings.

One of the leading organizations, the Modern Language Association, which has 30,000 members from hundreds of colleges and universities, has been in existence since 1883 and professes to study language, is perhaps one of the most influential of these academic associations in the humanities and social sciences. It shall be meeting beginning January 9 in Chicago.

At these meetings there will be programs dedicated to the teaching of English, Foreign Languages, Literature – and at the Delegate Council there will be a resolution on boycotting Israeli Academics and Institutions, the wording of which has not been publicly released. No one is taking any bets on whether this resolution will pass or not, but do not be surprised if it does.

Why might it pass? Because academics opposing academic boycotts have not been alarmed enough by the very successful persistent and predictable strategy of the pro-boycott movement: infiltrate academic societies and strategically introduce such resolutions while marshaling support from the governance body, and getting on the agenda when it may be too late to thwart the effort.

I speak as an insider who has fought the academic boycott movement since 2003 and who knows full well the tactics of this contingent. By the time it reaches the various governing councils of these organizations, it is too late in many cases to reverse the momentum.

It is quickly becoming too late for anti-academic boycott faculty to be successful with reactive measures to these boycotts. Frequently votes are taken at times when attendance is low or meetings are breaking and people are hustling to leave and catch planes. Frequently these votes are passed by a small minority of the general membership because faculty members simply aren’t paying attention or think others will take care of their concerns, thinking it can’t happen here. Well, it has happened, and academia has had a wake-up call.

So what is the antidote? Unfortunately this problem will not be solved with position statements by organizations or donations from large donors or even condemnations from the press.

The only antidote to these attacks on academic freedom will come from faculty themselves when they decide, in the words of the great humorist W.C. Fields, “to grab the bull by the tail and face the situation.” What does that mean? It means that every academic who opposes academic boycotts for any reason, whether it be purely academic terms or political or other reasons, must work within his or her own institution, discipline and professional society to develop the codified organizational and institutional policies that state in language that is clear and bold that the group will not entertain any proposals for academic boycotts based on national origin or institutional affiliation because such resolutions are discriminatory, may violate legal and tax statutes and are based on the notion of collective punishment, and such, are disruptive to the flow of academic discourse and research and anathema to the basic concept of academic freedom.

The policy also has to state sanctions for individual members engaging in such behavior, as this would be a violation of institutional or organization policy and regarded as academically unethical.

These statements must be codified, so that when the organized committees come to recruit vulnerable departments, faculty members and disciplines, the policy can be pointed to as a principle of the organization or institution.

Consequently, the challenging news is that this is hard work and only a few of us have rolled up our sleeves to do it discipline by discipline, campus by campus. These codes will supersede institutional statements by administrators who come and go. These codes will uphold time-honored commitments to academic freedom and freedom from discriminatory practices that have been hardfought battles won, and which have made academics stronger as a result.

Only academics in their societies, faculty senates and academic governance groups can make this happen. Those of us who are institutionally- based faculty cannot abandon this responsibility or they will learn, as many of my friends and colleagues have learned from the ASA experience and may well learn from the MLA experience, that their disciplines were considered vulnerable and conquerable by the academic boycott movement.

It is time for faculty to take their heads out of the sand and realize that to be silent is to be an accomplice.

To be reactive may well be to be too late; being vigilant and proactive is the only way to ward off these attacks on academic freedom.

The author is Steering Committee Coordinator at the International GrassRoots Faculty Committee on Academic Freedom and Integrity, and co-founder and president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. 

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