Academic Boycotts Are Anathema to Academic Freedom

UntitledAll too often, professors proclaim their allegiance to the principles of academic freedom and then take action that violates those very principles. Sadly, this is often the case when it comes to academia’s attitude toward the State of Israel and its institutions of higher learning.

The American Studies Association (ASA), which claims to be “the nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history,” is currently debating a proposed resolution to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities. Should the organization’s National Council, which consists of about 20 elected representatives, approve the resolution, the ASA will become the second major American scholarly organization to come out in favor of such an academic boycott.

Political neutrality has never been the ASA’s strong suit—it has a long history of speaking out in favor of left-wing political causes. What is remarkable, however, is that the ASA has never endorsed any academic boycotts against the 21st century’s worst offenders against academic freedom and the principles of free inquiry. Have we heard the ASA call for a boycott of Chinese universities until that country ends its occupation of Tibet and targeting of dissident professors? Or against Iranian institutions until Iran ends its human rights abuses and persecution of scholars? A perusal of the organization’s “Resolutions and Actions” on the ASA’s website shows no such calls.

But even putting aside considerations of the fairness of targeting Israel for such a boycott or the hypocrisy such targeting may evince, the crucial point remains that calls for an academic boycott should be condemned on the grounds of academic freedom alone.

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has long opposed such boycotts, and for good reason. Curtailing the free exchange of ideas among academics in order to oppose the foreign policy of the country in which those academics live is a gross violation of the basic principles of academic freedom.

As the seminal C. Vann Woodward Report, (one of the documents featured in ACTA’s Free to Teach, Free to Learn guide) puts it, “The primary function of a university is to discover and disseminate knowledge by means of research and teaching.” Many members of the ASA, however, seem to think otherwise. It appears they are of the belief that the academy’s primary role is political activism.

There is no clearer articulation of the wrongheadedness of the latter approach than the Kalven Committee’s Report on the University’s Role in Political and Social Action (also featured in Free to Teach, Free to Learn). Commissioned by the University of Chicago’s then-president George W. Beadle, the committee was commissioned to prepare “a statement on the University’s role in political and social action.” The committee’s findings were reached with a “deep consensus.” It came to the following conclusion:

To perform its mission in the society, a university must sustain an extraordinary environment of freedom of inquiry and maintain an independence from political fashions, passions, and pressures. … The neutrality of the university … 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.

Though the Kalven Committee focused specifically on the institution of the university, similar standards ought to apply to scholarly organizations like the American Studies Association. Scholarly associations, like universities, do not have political missions. They are dedicated to academic study and the quest for knowledge. Like universities, their core missions are compromised when they decide to act as what the Kalven Committee Report called “a second-rate political force or influence.” The ASA’s politicization is bad enough. Calling for an academic boycott clearly compromises the supposed mission of a scholarly group.

Some supporters of the boycott have argued that that it will enhance the academic freedom of Palestinian students and professors, who lack the ability to study and learn “free of military occupation.” But, even judging Israeli policy in the least favorable light, fighting for Palestinian academic freedom by compromising the freedom of scholars to work with Israeli institutions remains nonsensical. To their credit, many members of the ASA, including seven past presidents of the organization, have registered their opposition to the call for a boycott.

All those who care about academic freedom must work to make sure those voices of reason prevail. If they don’t, and the pro-boycott crowd wins, academic freedom will have taken a serious blow—and another group of academics will have embarrassed themselves and their profession.


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