The number of international students from outside the European Union at U.K. universities fell by 1 percent in 2012-13, the first decline since record-keeping began in the mid-'90s, Times Higher Educationreported. The number of new Indian students has dropped particularly precipitously, falling by half in just two years. Times Higher Education notes that the new data, released Thursday by the Higher Education Statistics Agency, can be expected to heighten concerns among university leaders about the effects of the government’s push to curb immigration.
China has detained a Uighur scholar who has challenged the government on its treatment of ethnic minorities, The Wall Street Journalreported. Ilham Tohti, an economist at Minzu University of China, was detained after a raid on his Beijing home and has been accused of unspecified crimes. He has been critical of Chinese government policies in the western Xinjiang region, which is home to the predominantly Muslim Uighur minority population. He has been detained before and last year was prevented from leaving China to take up his position as a visiting scholar at Indiana University.
A federal judge has ordered the U.S. government to remove the name of Rahinah Ibrahim, a professor and dean of the architecture and engineering school at the University of Malaysia, from the no-fly list, the Associated Press reported. Ibrahim maintains that she is on the list by mistake, while federal officials have said that national security would be endangered if they were forced to reveal why people are on the list. Ibrahim has been barred from the United States since 2005, when she tried to attend an academic conference in Hawaii.
A survey of faculty salaries by Al-Fanar finds that public university professors in much of the Middle East struggle to climb into the middle class. While of the 12 countries examined, Lebanon and the Gulf countries had the highest public university salaries and Yemen and Morocco the lowest, Al-Fanar found that in every country surveyed “a proportion of the salary scale was below the wage needed to be able to live a middle-class lifestyle when weighted by local purchasing power, specifically what is known as ‘purchasing power parity,’ or how far the professors’ wages could stretch in the local economy.”
“This survey gathered enough data to show what has long been complained about but not necessarily verified -- that professors in the Arab world overall do not make enough, despite their extensive education, to live a middle-class lifestyle, making teaching at a public university an unattractive profession,” Al-Fanar reported. “The findings also illustrate why so many academics migrate to better-paying countries when they can and also why many take on second and third jobs and promote their textbooks, tutoring lessons or consulting businesses.”
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
The American Studies Program at Middlebury College has issued a different kind of letter in response to the American Studies Association’s recent vote to boycott Israeli universities. In addition to stating its opposition to the resolution, the letter goes further to encourage the association to revisit its constitution and mission statement to consider the appropriate role of political action and to develop a mechanism whereby institutional members of the association (as opposed to just individual members) can vote.
“As an institutional member, our program never dreamed that we would be spending so much of our time and energy being asked by our administration, alumni, colleagues, students, and the media to support, explain, defend, or denounce an ASA resolution on which we had no right to vote. In this way, the boycott resolution has worked very much against ‘the encouragement of research, teaching [and] publication’ given emphasis in the organization’s constitution,” the letter reads.
The letter is signed by Middlebury's American studies program director and seven other faculty members. “Our longer-term membership in the ASA is by no means a foregone conclusion, because we do not have a full understanding of the association’s purpose," they write. "If we find no constructive engagement on the effort to define more clearly the ASA’s mission, we will, with regret, leave this long-valued institution.”
More than 100 college presidents have gone on record opposing the ASA boycott, as well as several major higher education associations; at least five universities have withdrawn or plan to withdraw as institutional members of the association.
Note: This article has been updated to incorporate the American Studies Association's response. The American Studies Association is facing a challenge of its tax-exempt status in the wake of a vote by the membership to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities. William A. Jacobson, a clinical professor of law at Cornell University and author of the conservative Legal Insurrection blog, wrote late yesterday that his lawyers had filed a whistle-blower complaint with the Internal Revenue Service charging that the boycott is not consistent with ASA’s purpose as a tax-exempt educational organization: “ASA’s academic boycott is anti-educational, seeking to sever the free exchange of ideas and interactions among scholars and institutions so critical to higher education,” the complaint states.
In a statement released by the ASA on Tuesday, Liz Jackson, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights, dismissed the challenge as "yet another instance of baseless legal bullying meant to harass and intimidate critics of Israeli policies."
More than 100 university presidents have issued statements opposing the boycott resolution, as have major higher education organizations including the American Association of University Professors, the American Council on Education, the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. The legal challenge may be yet another deterrent to scholarly organizations that consider following in the ASA’s footsteps, as, if nothing else, it could compel the association to incur legal costs.