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Historians Against ICE

Historians approve an anti-ICE resolution but vote down anti-Israel proposals at their annual meeting. They also show support for nontenured colleagues.

January 7, 2020
 

NEW YORK -- Members of the American Historical Association approved a resolution condemning college and university contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, 70 to 60, at their annual meeting over the weekend. They approved an additional statement in support of professors teaching off the tenure track, but voted down two resolutions expressing concern about academic freedom in Israel.

The successful resolution on ICE now goes to the AHA’s governing council for further consideration. Per association policies and procedures, the council may accept it, refuse to concur or exercise a veto.

Since its formation in 2003, ICE has inked handsome contracts with various institutions to offer cultural competency, medical and other training to federal workers, and to partner in research. Just a handful of universities currently have such contracts, and few to none of the projects relate to ICE’s most controversial functions regarding immigration. But these agreements have attracted increased scrutiny in recent years, as public disapproval of ICE’s methods -- including family separation -- grows.

Johns Hopkins University, for example, recently said that its School of Medicine Center for Law Enforcement Medicine will not renew its long-standing contract with ICE to provide emergency medical response training. Students and some faculty members previously urged the university to cut ties with ICE. Those tensions factored into a major campus protest last year.

The AHA resolution on ICE cites “serious and systematic violation of human rights committed by both ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol in recent years” and “their presence on U.S. university campuses for recruitment and research purposes.” It urges “university faculty, staff and administrators to sever existing ties and forgo future contracts with ICE and USBP” and to support “sanctuary movements on campuses that seek to protect immigrant students and workers.”

Alexander Avina, associate professor at Arizona State University, was the first to speak in favor of the resolution, saying that his own parents were undocumented migrants and that he now teaches such immigrants in the borderlands. He urged the AHA to take “a stand against ongoing state terrorism” and the idea that universities should make millions of dollars by working with agencies that perpetrate it.

Ashley Black, an assistant professor of history at California State University at Stanislaus, said she teaches students who were part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and who now live in a “state of fear and insecurity.” She asked the AHA to endorse campuses as sanctuaries in the interest of student safety and learning.

ICE had no vocal fans in the room, but a number of historians spoke out against the resolution on the grounds that it strays from AHA’s mission and established rules and practices. Mary Beth Norton, former AHA president and Mary Donlon Alger Professor Emerita at Cornell University, said she might support a resolution that adhered to the AHA’s Guiding Principles on Taking a Public Stance, highlighting threats to historical sources, academic freedom and historians’ movement. Yet she did not support the resolution as written.

Norton said later that the document said "nothing about historical scholarship or historians. Accordingly, it is outside the purview if the AHA as an organization, even though expressing outrage about ICE is entirely appropriate for individual historians in their capacity as citizens."  

Avina said that he and his colleagues behind the resolution hope that the council will "accept and publicly support" it.

Prior to the business meeting, the AHA Council approved a resolution on what departments can do to support historians working off the tenure track. Unsurprisingly, members also approved the document with no objections. The resolution says that many department chairs “can influence change in such important areas as the integration of [non-tenure-track faculty] members into departmental life and cultures.”

Chairs should make clear that non-tenure-track professors’ participation in service and governance are seen as “opportunities for professional development rather than as new expectations,” for example, and also ensure adjuncts’ access to resources, constructive teaching feedback and input on their syllabi. Chairs can also promote the interests of non-tenure-track colleagues with administrators, in an effort to enhance job stability and economic security via multiyear contacts and other means, according to the AHA.

Voting Down Anti-Israel Resolution

The AHA also rejected anti-Israel resolutions at the meeting, as it has several times during the ongoing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. The two resolutions up for a vote this year condemned Israel for restricting the academic freedom and travel of Palestinian scholars and the foreign nationals -- including U.S. citizens -- who wish to teach, confer or do research with them.

Recalling other disciplinary society debates over BDS proposal, several speakers at the AHA meeting described the resolutions as unfairly singling out Israel among many other nations with questionable records on academic freedom and human rights. Proponents of the resolutions, in turn, asserted that the AHA has, over time, singled out other countries for violations of academic freedom. Some also pointed to U.S. federal aid to Israel, saying that the special relationship between the two nations should translate to special concern.

Sharon Musher, associate professor at Stockton University and a member of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, said that the resolution on protecting the right to education "singles out Israel, neglecting academic freedom violations by worse offenders, including China, Singapore and the Gulf Emirate with whom American universities ally." 
 
While Israel merits criticism for some of its actions, the resolution would harm the AHA, she also warned. "Endorsing this politicized resolution today will tarnish the professionalism of the association. It will also create needless division within the AHA. The association should remain a welcome home to all historians, whatever their politics."
 
The academic freedom resolution was amended during the meeting to be sent out to all members of the AHA, had it passed. But it died before it could even be forwarded to the governing council, with 41 members in favor and 80 opposed. The second proposal, on the rights of U.S. academics visiting Israel and Palestinian areas, failed with 36 members in favor and 61 opposed.

Proponents of the Israel-related resolutions made clear during the meeting that they would not be deterred by failures.

The AHA has no bylaws against repeat proposals. Jim Grossman, executive director of the association, said after the meeting that the issues raised in the petitions will be the subject of annual meeting sessions in coming years.

“Since everything has a history,” he added, “all issues in historical context are appropriate for proposals to our program committee.”

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