U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Academic Freedom at Brooklyn College Update [Updated Below]

[Note: In what follows, I speak only for myself, and not for S-USIH, my USIH blog colleagues, or my home institution. Although this is always the case, it is worth reiterating on matters of potential controversy. ]

Last Thursday, Tim Lacy posted about a brewing controversy over a panel on the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) Movement that is planned for this Thursday, February 7, at Brooklyn College and that is being co-sponsored by the Brooklyn College Political Science Department. You can read the basic details of the controversy in his post.

The political pressure on Brooklyn College and its Political Science Department has mounted.  Most notably, it’s been revealed that, on January 29, Lewis Fidler, Assistant Majority Leader of the New York City Council, sent a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, co-signed by ten city council members, threatening to withdraw city funding for Brooklyn College (and perhaps CUNY) if the college does not cancel the event or at the very least end any official sponsorship of it. (Here’s a .pdf of Fidler’s letter.)

Corey Robin, friend of S-USIH and this blog and a member of the Brooklyn College Political Science Department, has been tirelessly blogging about this controversy.  For the latest details and his own thoughtful analysis, head over to his blog.

Very early in this controversy, I wrote to administrators at Brooklyn College asking them to stand behind their Political Science Department (Tim’s post includes contact information for those interested in doing so as well).  To me, this was a simple matter of academic freedom.  I happen not to support BDS.* But an academic unit is fully within its rights to sponsor panels as it sees fit.  There is no general rule of balance, even on matters of controversy.  Departmental sponsorship never implies an endorsement of the views of the speakers.  Indeed, the student group that had put this panel together had asked the Political Science Department whether they wanted to “co-sponsor” or to “endorse” the panel, and the Department chose to do the former, not the latter.

As a number of people have pointed out (including Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian, at his customary great length), Alan Dershowitz, who was leading the charge on the “provide balance” front, has never demanded that his own controversial views on, say, torture be balanced by opposing opinions when he has given talks at academic institutions…including Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department, which invited him to give a prestigious endowed lecture.  The demand that the panel be “balanced” is entirely ad hoc and would be unworkable if it were somehow made into a principle of academic events (even of “controversial” ones).

And, as noted above, other opponents of the event, including members of the New York City Council, are demanding cancellation, not balance.

In an open society, in general, the best response to speech with which one disagrees is more speech, not less.  This is doubly the case in an academic context, in which the opportunities to generate opposing speech are great and in which the very mission of the institution relies on open and vigorous debate.  That the very operation of higher education institutions is at stake here is nicely dramatized by public officials’ threatening Brooklyn College’s funding on the basis of the fact that they find a single speaker’s views to be offensive.  Public higher education would be impossible in an atmosphere in which faculty and administrators felt that views that might offend public officials or their constituents had to be kept off campus.

If you feel as I do about these things, please consider signing this petition in support of academic freedom at Brooklyn College. It’s not perfect. It explicitly supports Brooklyn College’s co-sponsorship of the panel, a position that is unnecessary to the case for academic freedom. Even if one would not have supported co-sponsoring the panel, one might well support the Department’s right to do so.  Indeed, the principle here is not that co-sponsorship is a good thing, but rather that the only people who are in a position to judge whether or not the Political Science Department at Brooklyn College ought to co-sponsor a panel are the members of the Political Science Department at Brooklyn College.  But the petition is close enough to my views that I felt comfortable signing it nonetheless. I hope you’ll consider doing so, too.

UPDATE (1 pm CST, Feb 4):

Karen Gould, President of Brooklyn College, has bravely come down on the side of academic freedom. Here’s the most important part of her statement (I’ll post a link when I get one):

“First, however, let me be clear: Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast.  Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate.   The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event.  In this case, the department’s co-sponsorship of the event is an invitation to participate; it does not indicate an endorsement of the speakers’ positions.  Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.  Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.

“At the same time, it is essential that Brooklyn College remain an engaged and civil learning environment where all views may be expressed without fear of intimidation or reprisal.  As I stated last week, we encourage debate, discussion, and more debate.  Students and faculty should explore these and other issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the only basis for consideration.  Contrary to some reports, the Department of Political Science fully agrees and has reaffirmed its longstanding policy to give equal consideration to co-sponsoring speakers who represent any and all points of view.”

Often, statements from university administrators in situations such as this are attempts to split the difference between the two sides in a controversy. In contrast to such attempts, this statement stands out for its forthrightness and clarity. As Corey Robin says in his latest post on Crooked Timber, from which I took the paragraphs from Gould’s statement, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a leader of an educational institution take a more principled and courageous stand than this.”  But, as Corey also notes, this fight isn’t over.  Given the threats to the funding of Brooklyn College, the political battle very much continues.

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* As Naomi Klein has written, BDS is a tactic, not a dogma. And it’s a tactic about which there is significant controversy, even among critics of Israel.  For example, both Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein apparently oppose BDS.  When, early in the controversy, Alan Dershowitz  was demanding that the College provide “balance” by including someone with an alternate perspective on BDS, a number of internet wags suggested that they invite Finkelstein, whom Dershowitz had successfully pressured DePaul University to fire.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. In the early 1950s, while New York Catholics often seemed to stumble from controversy to controversy over movies that are largely forgotten today, theologian John Courtney argued in the nation’s most well-respected Catholic journal, Theological Studies, that “a human society is inhumanly ruled when it is ruled only, or mostly, by fear. Good laws are obeyed by the generality because they are good laws, they merit and receive the consent of the community, as valid legal expressions of the community’s own convictions as to what is just or unjust, good or evil.”
    Murray weighed in on battles over censorship–of literature and movies by Catholic watchdog groups including the Legion of Decency. He acknowledged that communities would not think with a like-mind, or share a common opinion, but observed that when it came to the work of the Legion: “We need not quibble over the word; the frequent fact is that many [pressure groups] achieve the results of censorship, even if they refuse the name.”
    I commend the folks at Brooklyn College for struggling against censorship.

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