ASA and the Politicization of Academe

Peter Wood

This article originally appeared on Minding the Campus on December 19, 2013.

The membership of the American Studies Association (ASA) on December 15 voted by a two-thirds majority to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities.  Minding the Campus has provided good coverage of both the events leading up to this vote and its immediate aftermath.  David Bernstein at George Mason and Jonathan Marks at Ursinus College have kept a close watch on the developments for MTC.  And observers in many other quarters have issued thunderclaps at varying decibels--and effectiveness.  The decisions by Brandeis University and Penn State-Harrisburg to cancel their institutional memberships in ASA give some heft to the outrage. 

My organization, the National Association of Scholars (NAS) urged ASA members to reject the boycott.  Now that it has passed, some NAS members are urging a further step.  They would like us to join in a proposed counter-boycott aimed at persuading universities to refuse to pay for ASA membership or for travel to ASA events. As the nation's largest association of university faculty members committed to traditional academic standards, what NAS does or doesn't do on a matter like this has some importance. 

There are 85 colleges and universities on the ASA 2013 list of "institutional members."  The spirit of the proposal is understandable, but I'm reluctant to engage in that kind of battle.  It is one thing for colleges and universities to make a principled decision to withdraw support from an academic organization that has gone off the rails.  The decisions by Brandeis and Penn State-Harrisburg are commendable and I hope other universities will do likewise.  But to call for a "boycott" is to set aside principled argument and moral suasion for the blunt instrument of social coercion. 

Why NAS Won't Boycott the ASA

Boycotts, of course, can be effective and I don't underestimate their potential power.  If college administrators fear that not joining a boycott will expose them to recrimination and risk the disaffection of alumni, they may well discover their principled objections to the ASA's action a lot sooner.  Disturbing the complacency of college presidents is never easy.  Most of them are planted in the status quo like pilings driven into bedrock.  They often pose as visionary agents of change, but their pose resembles that of equestrian statues.  The courageous general points with his sword at yonder hill, but there he sits immobile from spring to summer and fall to winter, years on end. 

Only an earthquake will move them. 

That is perhaps a reason to encourage earthquakes, but maybe not boycotts.  William Jacobson, the Cornell law professor who blogs prolifically at his site Legal Insurrection, announced his intention of challenging ASA's tax exemption as a 501(c)3 organization. Jacobson has now retained a lawyer, Alan Dye, to file the challenge.  This sounds right to me.  I'm head of a 501(c)3 organization and every time I take any action on behalf of NAS I think carefully about how well it comports with the IRS restrictions that limit us to work that is "religious, charitable, or educational" in purpose.  NAS doesn't engage in partisan politics or strike positions on issues outside our purview of education. 

When it comes to the disputes between Israel and Palestinians, my sympathies are with the sole democracy in the Middle East, where the rule of law prevails and minorities are protected.  But my sympathies don't give me warrant to make NAS an advocate of political policies that favor Israel or disfavor Palestinians. 

This isn't especially easy in an era in which Israel-bashing has become high fashion on the academic left.  Some conservative organizations, such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center, have pushed back by making the emergence of the new campus anti-Semitism a major focus.  The rise of hard-left advocacy for Palestinian rights is almost always interwoven with passionate hostility for the state of Israel.  Down this road lies the kind of action that the American Studies Association has just brought to much broader public attention.  What is the right response?

A More Constructive Approach

First, if the ASA boycott is an abuse of its status as a 501(c)3 organization, surely a counter-boycott in which non-profits such as NAS participated would be too. 

Be that as it may, boycotts are themselves a tool of force.  They use the tools of economic punishment and social ostracism to advance their goals.  In the realms of markets and politics, such tools are perfectly acceptable.  But in the realm higher education, those tools have a different resonance.  They speak, at least implicitly, not of winning the argument but of winning the war; not of persuading your opponent, but of forcing him to kneel; not of having truth on your side, but of having the upper hand.

We have had an awful lot of this in our national politics in recent years and I can understand why "our side" would like to turn the tables. But I don't want to turn them. I'd rather be on the side that sticks up for the principle that higher education is above politics and that its preferred instruments are good argument, sound evidence, eloquence in defense of basic principles, consistency, and integrity. Getting the presidents of those 85 colleges and universities to listen and to act will not be an easy thing.  But I'd rather see PrincetonUT-Austin, Boston University, Brigham Young, Brown, William and Mary, Emory, Harvard, Lehigh, Temple, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and the others come to their senses about what the ASA has done than to have them bow to a threat. 

I can imagine that some will find this view too idealistic. To win fights, you have to prepare to get down in the dust, etc.  Actually, no. To win fights, you have to understand what kind of fight you are in.  This is a fight over whether the university is just another seat of political power or whether it stands for something in its own right. The academic left is increasingly ready to treat the university as a tool for recruiting acolytes and beating its enemies.  Today, Israel is its enemy, but it has plenty of others.  If we cede the principle that the university really is no more than another instrument of power, I don't know what we will have left to defend.


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