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A professor’s use of a class website at the University of California at Los Angeles to promote a boycott of Israel has led to a protest and a subsequent finding by the university that his actions were inappropriate, and has raised questions about academic freedom and its interpretation.
The AMCHA Initiative, a California group that focuses on actions it views as anti-Israel, complained to the university in March after it found out about the links that were used last quarter on the official class website of David Shorter, an associate professor in the department of World Arts and Culture/Dance for his course, "Tribal Worldviews."
Last week, Andrew Leuchter, the chair of UCLA’s Academic Senate and a professor of psychiatry and bio-behavioral sciences, said in an e-mail to AMCHA that the professor's actions were inappropriate. “At my request, Professor Shorter’s department chair counseled him that posting of such materials is not appropriate. Professor Shorter’s chair assures me that he understands his serious error in judgment and has said that he will not make this mistake again,” the e-mail said.
Leuchter, in his e-mail, said that had the senate known about the issue when the course was being offered, it would have been possible to assess the role of the website in the classroom. “As you know, this course concluded last quarter, so it is not possible after the fact to determine definitively what was taught in each lecture and how all the materials on the course website were used,” he said. Shorter did not respond to requests for an interview from Inside Higher Ed.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, co-founder of the AMCHA Initiative and a lecturer at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said the case showed that "there are professors who misuse and abuse university positions and use academic freedom to promote their political agendas directed against Israel."
Academic freedom experts said that professors are not free to use class websites to promote political agendas. “If the link posted is strictly of a political nature, and is unrelated to the course content, then it is not protected by academic freedom,” said Greg Scholtz, AAUP’s director of academic freedom, tenure and governance. It could be an entirely different matter if the professor in question were teaching a class on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Scholtz said.
Discussions of the Israeli-Arab conflict, like many thorny issues, can pose special challenges. A 2011 report by the AAUP on academic freedom talked about the pressures on scholars of the Middle East from outside groups who disagree with them. “Equally disturbing have been the attacks on the scholars of the Middle East by students and outside groups who dislike their views on Israel and Palestine and seek to deny them tenure or impose other sanctions,” it said.
Ernst Benjamin, former general secretary of the AAUP, said that professors usually have a broad latitude if the issue they are discussing is relevant to the class. Engaging in political activity or trying to recruit students for such campaigns in a classroom is not part of academic freedom and endangers the classroom, he said.
As for academic boycotts, such as the one that Shorter, the UCLA professor, was advocating, the AAUP in 2006 issued a statement opposing them because of “its commitment to the free exchange of ideas.” The organization issued the statement clarifying its position after the British Association of University Teachers called for a boycott of two Israeli universities.