Dozens of college and university presidents have released statements condemning the American Studies Association’s vote to boycott Israeli universities, but professors at one institution have penned their own letter saying that the president does not speak for them.
In a letter released on behalf of himself and the dean of the faculty, Trinity College (Connecticut) President James F. Jones Jr. denounced the boycott, and said that if the college were still an institutional member of the ASA it “would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East.”
“The dean and I oppose academic boycotts in general because they can so easily encroach upon academic freedom. In this strange case, why the ASA would propose an academic boycott of Israel and not, for example, of Syria, the Sudan, North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, or Russia escapes rational thought,” President Jones' letter reads, in part.
Yet a letter signed by 21 Trinity faculty criticizes Jones’ letter as “singularly uninformed” and “intellectually lazy,” taking the president to task for his characterization of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East (what about Lebanon and Turkey?), and decrying the letter’s reliance on “clichéd denunciations" rather than real engagement with arguments involving academic freedom and the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians in the occupied territories.
"We would encourage you to read at least a few of the essays that offer the case for the ASA position and show that academic freedom is not violated," the faculty write, citing as reading recommendations a recent edition of the Journal of Academic Freedom dedicated to this topic and a 2006 article by the philosopher Judith Butler, "Israel/Palestine and the Paradoxes of Academic Freedom."
"It would have been a useful gesture to have read up on the debate and engaged it with some authority," the Trinity faculty write. "As it is, your letter returns to the first utterance when the campaign for an academic boycott was proposed by Palestinian and Israeli scholars in 2005 – there is no engagement with the long debate as it has unfolded over the past decade."
Davarian L. Baldwin, the Paul E. Raether Distinguished Professor of American Studies at Trinity, said he was "appalled" that the president and dean released a statement in their official capacities after the American studies faculty had discussed the issue amongst themselves and, finding their opinions divided, made the decision not to release a statement. He wished the administrators had “at least made clear that this is not a unified, collective voice…It’s their own individual position.”
"If they're going to push us, we're going to push back," said Paul Lauter, the Allan K. & Gwendolyn Miles Smith Professor of Literature and a past president of the ASA. Both Baldwin and Lauter are among those who signed the Trinity faculty letter and both supported the ASA boycott resolution.
"There are many college presidents who have entered into this in a fairly thoughtless way and really need to rethink where things are at," said Lauter. "They act as if nothing has changed. That's not the case: things have changed, and the process through which ASA came to the action that it came to has gone on for at least two years, and it’s been a process of discussion and discovery and contradiction."
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations is maintaining a compilation of more than 50 statements from university presidents denouncing the ASA boycott on its website. Four institutions -- Brandeis University, Indiana University, Kenyon College, and Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg -- have announced that they will withdraw as institutional members of the association.
"Schools must be above everything else free and open spaces where debates about important and possibly contentious issues can occur," Trinity President Jones said in an email Friday afternoon. "The dean and I knew that there might be other views than our own. I respect the rights of my colleagues to state their position as I hope they would respect our inherent right to do the same."
UPDATE: Another letter has been released by Trinity faculty members -- this one opposing the boycott and praising their president's letter. These professors letter to their president and dean said: "From the American Association of University Professors to the Association of American Universities, to eight former ASA presidents – the message is crystal-clear: academic boycotts are anathema to our undertaking, because – whatever their intent – they encroach upon academic freedom. Thank you for affirming this essential principle at this time."