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Crossing a Line

April 23, 2009

Everyone involved in the dispute over William I. Robinson talks about lines being crossed.

A tenured professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Robinson said that his critics have crossed lines of fairness by equating his criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, and that the faculty judicial system is crossing lines that are supposed to protect academic freedom by investigating him.

His critics say that he crossed a line of professionalism by sending e-mail to all of the students in one of his courses material about "parallel" images of Nazi and Israeli attacks. Some students view the material as anti-Semitic, and they quit the course and filed a grievance against him.

Faculty members are in the process of selecting a panel that will consider the charges against Robinson and determine whether to recommend that a standing faculty panel conduct a full investigation of the incident. While no action has been taken against him at this time, he views the inquiries as an attempt to quash criticism of Israel. Robinson is consulting with lawyers and may sue to block the coming proceedings.

At issue is an e-mail message that Robinson sent to the approximately 80 students in January in a course about sociology and globalization. The e-mail contained an an article criticizing the Israeli military's actions in Gaza. Part of the e-mail was an assemblage of photos from Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews and from Israel's actions in Gaza. Students were invited to look at the "parallel images." A message from Robinson argued that Gaza would be like "Israel's Warsaw."

In February, the Anti-Defamation League's Santa Barbara office wrote to Robinson to protest the e-mail and to urge him to repudiate it. "While your writings are protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom, we rely upon our rights to say that your comparisons of Nazis and Israelis were offensive, ahistorical and have crossed the line well beyond legitimate criticism of Israel," the letter said. It went on to say that the "tone and extreme views" in his e-mail were "intimidating to students," and that using his university e-mail to send "material that appears unrelated to" his course violated university standards for faculty members.

Following that letter, two students in the course dropped the class and filed complaints against Robinson. One student wrote that she felt "nauseous" upon reading the e-mail, and felt it was inappropriate. She wrote that the "demonization of Israel" is a form of anti-Semitism, and that she no longer felt comfortable in the course, after receiving the "horrific e-mail," and so dropped out.

A second student complaint accusing Robinson of being unprofessional -- also from a student who dropped the course after receiving the e-mail -- said that Robinson has "clearly stated his anti-Semitic political views in this e-mail." The first student e-mailed to ask Robinson what she was supposed to do with the material and he replied that it was for her information, although he now says that the material was part of his teaching about globalization and that his answer to her meant only that she didn't have to do anything immediately with the material.

Under Santa Barbara's faculty governance system, such complaints go to a "charges officer" and then -- if they are serious -- a committee may be formed, somewhat like a grand jury, to determine whether formal charges should be brought against the professor. Robinson maintains that the communication is so clearly covered by academic freedom that the faculty charges officer should have dropped the matter. Instead, a committee is being formed to determine whether the charges merit consideration by the standing committee that considers such allegations and can recommend sanctions against a professor.

The charges officer sent Robinson an e-mail explaining why the probe was going ahead to the next stage: "[H]ere is a summary of the allegations: You, as professor of an academic course, sent to each student enrolled in that course a highly partisan email accompanied by lurid photographs. The e-mail was unexpected and without educational context. You offered no explanation of how the material related to the content of the course. You offered no avenue to discuss, nor encouraged any response, to the opinions and photographs included in the e-mail. You directly told a student who inquired that the e-mail was not connected to the course. As a result, two enrolled students were too distraught to continue with the course. The constellation of allegations listed above, if substantially true, may violate the Faculty Code of Conduct."

He cited rules in the code that bar faculty members from "significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course" and "use of the position or powers of a faculty member to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for arbitrary or personal reasons."

With issues related to the Middle East setting off numerous disputes on campuses this year, students who back Robinson have created a Web site with documents on the case and are trying to mobilize support for him. Robinson's critics, meanwhile, have taken to YouTube.

In an interview Wednesday, Robinson called the charges against him "absolutely absurd." He noted that he is Jewish and said that he abhors anti-Semitism, and that his academic freedom is being violated by the university taking seriously charges that link his e-mail criticisms of Israel's government with anti-Semitism. "This is all because I have criticized the policies of the State of Israel."

Robinson said that the fact that the statements were in e-mail and not during a class session is irrelevant. "Every week I send students a tremendous amount of material by e-mail," he said. "In the age of the Internet, academic material is distributed digitally" and must have academic freedom.

He also rejected the idea that the material was not relevant to the course. "The course deals with global issues and global society," and was starting as Israel was attacking Gaza, he said. "Of course it is part of the course."

As to the comparison that so angered the students and the ADL, Robinson stands behind it. "The message was not that the Israelis are gassing the Palestinians, but that the people who suffered the Holocaust are doing similar things, are doing parallel things," he said. "My position is that of the international community." He said that in the Warsaw ghetto, "the Nazis rounded up the Jews and they wouldn't let anyone in or out" and said that was "exactly and precisely" what Israel has done to Gaza.

Robinson added that "my students can and do debate" his views. (Robinson also maintains that the university isn't following proper procedure in his case, and that attempts should have been made to resolve matters within his department before starting formal proceedings.)

Cynthia Silverman, Santa Barbara regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview that students approached her group with concerns after receiving the e-mail. Silverman said that the ADL was not trying to block criticism of Israel. But she said that "the question is at what point is academic freedom crossing over into the intimidation of students." Asked if any students had complained that Robinson punished them for pro-Israel views or wouldn't let them express their views, she said No.

But she then said that the issue was Robinson distributing material "completely unrelated to his course." She said that the ADL does not contest "his right to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction," but said that the critique of Israel "really had nothing to do with the course."

Robinson has called for the Santa Barbara administration to step in and affirm his rights. But a spokesman for the university noted that this type of grievance against a faculty member is handled at this stage by faculty panels, not administrators. If later in the process, a faculty panel finds that Robinson violated the faculty code of conduct, that panel would make a recommendation to the campus chancellor, so the spokesman said that it would be inappropriate for the administration to weigh in on the case at this time.

Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that the AAUP has not been asked for help in the case or studied it. But he offered his opinions on some of the issues raised by the case.

On the issue of the Nazis-Israelis comparison, Nelson said that "historical comparisons are protected by academic freedom, whether or not they are endorsed by a majority of other scholars, even if the analogies are debatable, provocative, or reprehensible."

And on the idea that Robinson may be evaluated for e-mail he sent to students that some see as irrelevant to the course, he said that "faculty are free to express their political views to any audience, including a class, so long as students are not compelled to adopt them and are free to express their own opinions without fear of penalty." The issue of relevance to course topics only becomes a valid complaint if persistent, Nelson said, explaining that "a class cannot be persistently sidetracked by matters not relevant to the course."

 

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