New Russian law requiring NGOs to register as "foreign agents" if they receive funding from foreign sources and are engaged in "political activity" threatens closure of an independent polling agency and raises concerns about climate for scholarly collaborations.
Ball State University is embroiled in controversy over a course offered by its physics and astronomy department, called "The Boundaries of Science." The Freedom From Religion Foundation has complained that the course isn’t science but religious indoctrination, and that because Ball State is a public university, offering the course violates the church-state separation required by the First Amendment. Others say it’s an exercise in academic freedom. In fact, it is probably neither.
Academic freedom protects professors’ scholarship and teaching — within limits. It certainly protects the ability to broach controversial ideas in class. But it isn’t an absolute right. Professors have to teach the subjects assigned, and can’t engage in racial or sexual harassment, to mention just a few limits. There is also the matter of professional competence. A Holocaust denier may be competent to teach math or Spanish, but is unqualified to teach European history. A believer in "creation science" may be competent to teach medieval literature, but not biology. If the course is junk science, the professor has no academic-freedom right to teach it, and his department should have enough professional integrity to remove it from the catalog.
But what if the department decides not to? Does teaching the course at a public university violate the constitutional mandate prohibiting an "establishment of religion," as it indisputably would if offered at a public high school? There’s little case law on this question — probably because there aren’t many public universities that offer courses proselytizing religion under the guise of science.
The traditional formula for deciding whether a government program violates the Establishment Clause is the so-called "Lemon test," derived from a 1971 Supreme Court case, and asking three questions: whether the program has a secular purpose; whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion; and whether it results in excessive government entanglement with religion. More recently, the Supreme Court has used two other tests: whether the program amounts to government endorsement of religion, and whether it is coercive. The coercion inquiry is particularly relevant to prayers and religion courses in public schools: where a prayer is mandatory, it forces students to recite beliefs they don’t necessarily hold, and where a course is mandatory, it subjects them to unwanted indoctrination.
In 1972, a federal court of appeals struck down a chapel-attendance mandate at a collegiate military academy, even though no one was required to attend the academy (unlike a public school) and even though cadets could be excused from the chapel requirement (Anderson v. Laird). In two later cases, on the other hand, courts allowed graduation prayers at public universities on the theory that there was no coercion, there was a secular purpose (to "solemnize public occasions"), there was no primarily religious effect because "an audience of college-educated adults" — unlike school children — was not likely to be unduly influenced, and there was no excessive entanglement with religion (Tanford v. Brand and Chaudhuri v. Tennessee). But in a 2003 case, another court ruled that a supper prayer at the Virginia Military Institute did violate the Establishment Clause because the students were "plainly coerced into participating in a religious exercise" (Mellen v. Bunting).
Then there was the strange case of a group in Nassau County, New York, which challenged a "Human Sexuality" course at the local community college because, they claimed, it "proselytizes against the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic and advocates an anti-religious sexual ethic to replace it." The judge found no endorsement of religion, a secular purpose, and nothing implicating any other prong of the Lemon test (Gheta v. Nassau County Community College).
How might these somewhat inconsistent precedents apply to "The Boundaries of Science"? There is no coercion because nobody has to attend Ball State or enroll in the course. There’s little likelihood that reasonable observers would think the administration endorses the professor’s religious message. On the contrary, a basic tenet of academic freedom is that professors don’t necessarily speak for the university — indeed, they should be free to speak out against its policies. There’s little chance of entanglement with religion, and although it might be difficult to discern a secular purpose, and the primary effect might be religious, on balance, the courts would probably not find this dubious course to violate the Establishment Clause.
Academic freedom, as a matter of First Amendment right at public universities, protects both the institution and the individual professor. The Supreme Court has noted the potential for conflict between the two. In the case of Ball State, though, the question is one of professional competence, and the institution, through its faculty committees, gets to decide whether "The Boundaries of Science" meets this standard. If it is religion masquerading as science, it clearly doesn’t, regardless of whether it violates the Establishment Clause.
A case from the University of Alabama in 1991 supports this conclusion. Students complained that a professor of physiology was engaging in religious proselytizing in class. The university told him to stop; the professor claimed a violation of his academic freedom. The federal court of appeals acknowledged that, as the Supreme Court had recognized years before, teachers’ academic freedom is a "special concern of the First Amendment," but in the end ruled that the university was within its rights in restricting the professor’s classroom speech. The court did not reach the question of whether religious proselytizing in a public university class violates the Establishment Clause (Bishop v. Aronov).
In the case of "The Boundaries of Science," the right of the Ball State administration to decide on the course’s overall scientific validity is even stronger than the University of Alabama’s claim of authority to restrict a professor’s occasional in-class proselytizing. The point is that these are educational decisions for the university to make, and absent a violation of the Establishment Clause, outside political interference is dangerous, no matter how well-intentioned.
Ball State agrees to investigate course -- taught by professor of physics and astronomy -- that critics say is too focused on Christian views for a science class at a public university. Is this issue one of church and state, or of academic freedom?
As you know, on April 20, on the last day of its annual meeting, the Association for Asian American Studies, passed a resolution to “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions” and to encourage “research and public speaking... in support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.”
While I disagree with the resolution, what struck me most at the time was that the vote, conducted by secret ballot, was unanimous, without so much as an abstention. I know that scholars like Sunaina Maira and Magid Shihadehave argued for exploring “points of convergence and divergence” between Asian-American studies and Arab-American studies, which share the “project of resisting Orientalism and imperialism within and beyond the United States.”
But Maira and Shihade, writing in 2006, concede that their proposal faces resistance from some Asian-Americanists “sympathetic to Israel,” and from others unhappy with the “expansion of the intellectual terrain and crossing of borders” involved in reaching out to Arab-American studies. Seven years later not one dissenting voice could be heard when the AAAS planted its flag in the Middle East.
Even more striking, not one of you has voiced dissent since. Early this month, I wrote this post, whose premise was that no one in your field — and there are thousands of you — had publicly criticized the resolution. I must admit I was in a sweat to get the piece out because I imagined it was only a matter of time before one of you broke the silence.
I need not have worried. Nearly a month has passed since the resolution, and your silence continues. The American Association of University Professors, in rejecting the AAAS’s call for a boycott, noted that the AAUP “neither supports nor opposes Israeli government or Palestinian policies, although many... members certainly have strong beliefs on one side or the other.” Apart from reminding us of another ground, namely opposition to academic boycotts, on which one might have expected at least one Asian-Americanist to vote against the resolution, the AAUP reminds us of a feature of every academic association I know: they include people who have strong beliefs on both sides of controversial issues.
I wonder if even those of you who consider the resolution a victory think, as I do, that the complete lack of opposition to it is eerie. But I also have questions for those of you — I hope there are some — who have not publicly disagreed with the resolution but are not ardent supporters of it either.
Do you know about the BDS movement? Are you aware that the movement stands not only for Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza but also for “respecting the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their lands from which they were ethnically cleansed during the 1948 Nakba”? As Eric Alterman, who decries the “brutal treatment of the Palestinian people,” argues, the demand for the reintegration of “six or seven million Palestinians” amounts to the “demand that Israel, as currently constituted, commit suicide.”
Norman Finklestein, one of Israel’s best known and harshest critics, has said that the BDS movement is dishonest on this score: "They think they're being very clever. They call it their three tiers.... We want the end of the occupation, we want the right of return, and we want equal rights for Arabs in Israel.... [T]hey know the result.... You know and I know what's the result: there's no Israel."
Finally, Noam Chomsky, a supporter of BDS tactics properly applied, nonetheless thinks the “call of Palestinian society” to which the AAAS refers is “a gift to Israeli and U.S. hardliners” not only because it implicitly calls for the “destruction of Israel” but also because it targets only Israel and lets the United States, England, and other countries “where it is a hundred times worse,” off the hook.
Why not, he suggests, boycott universities in the United States, which have been at least as complicit in imperial crimes as Israeli universities? No doubt that would be bad for AAAS business, but the call as it stands, like a 2002 call to divest from Israel in which Chomsky participated “out of solidarity,” “could be attacked... as pure anti-Semitism.”
If “you hate the Palestinians,” Chomsky snarks, "it’s a good step.” I don’t bring Chomsky up with you because I, like him, hope for the success of a properly targeted BDS movement. Rather, I want to point out that if you think the AAAS, in unanimously supporting the BDS call, was merely expressing criticism of Israel or concern about the Palestinians, you’ve been had.
The AAAS, which claims to “act as an advocate for the interests and welfare of Asian-American studies” and consequently to act as an advocate for your interests and welfare, has hitched your wagon to a single deeply controversial strand of Israel criticism. Even if you do not agree with Alterman, Finkelstein, or Chomsky, don’t you think that unanimous agreement on a matter about which even Israel critics disagree vociferously is a sign of your field’s ill health?
The president and executive board of AAAS in a recent official statement about the resolution, seeks to shield itself from the charge of selectively targeting Israel. “Many other countries,” they concede, "are, of course, human rights abusers and violators of international law.”
However, “there is active debate on and criticism of their actions at the levels of government and civil society,” whereas Israel enjoys “special status” in the United States and is “immune from government criticism.” This argument puts you in a bad position because to accept it without comment is to suggest that you do not know that Israel comes in for harsh criticism in The New York Times and in Israel’s own newspapers.
It also suggests you are unaware that President Obama, like President Bush before him, has explicitly criticized Israel’s settlement policy. You are also put in a bad position by the argument that “U.S. academics who speak out against the Israeli government’s policies are subject to intimidation and retribution.” To accept that claim, one has to pretend not to know that such speaking out is mainstream, so much so that John Mearsheimer, co-author of the Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, got to suffer his intimidation and retribution on "The Colbert Report."
Perhaps more tellingly, one has to ignore the fact that not one person in your field has thought the resolution controversial enough to question. Do you want to associate yourself with the argument that human rights abuses in the West Bank are more worthy of comment than human rights abuses in Sri Lanka because the latter are more often discussed?
There is one more reason the AAAS’s support for the BDS call puts Asian-American studies in a bad position. Read this post by Byron Wong, a blogger whose subject is “Asian American intellectualism, activism, and literature.” Wong, explaining to me why Asian-American intellectuals are not more disturbed by the BDS resolution, proposes that many of them think the AAAS irrelevant: “Asian Americans outside of academia don’t care what the AAAS does, since most of us are hardly affected by them at all (since they’re often deadlocked on issues that matter).”
While Wong thinks that Asian-American studies professors are silent on the resolution because they are “just ecstatic that the AAAS finally can agree on something,” it is hard to see how taking a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to interest people like Wong, who support Asian American activism but do not think that taking such a position does anything to help Asian-Americans.
In closing, I cannot resist asking: Are you at all embarrassed?
I grant that Eric Alterman, Norman Finklestein, and Noam Chomsky, not to speak of BDS’s critics outside of the left, may be wrong about the BDS movement. I also grant that bloggers like Byron Wong may be wrong about the AAAS. Reasonable people disagree about the Middle East, about the advisability of academic boycotts, and about how the AAAS can best serve Asian Americans.
But that is precisely what makes the complete absence of a public conversation about these matters among Asian Americanists, a conversation with at least two sides, so peculiar. How can a group purporting to stand for the “highest professional standard of excellence in teaching and research” permit itself to appear so close-minded?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Associate Professor of Politics
Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at twitter.com/marksjo1.
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