BDS: Boycotting Academic Freedom

Ashley Thorne

Editor’s note: this article was originally published by spiked on May 3, 2016. Two days after this article was published the Chancellor of UMass Amherst announced that  "The University of Massachusetts Amherst is opposed to academic boycotts of any kind" and would "not discontinue any of its academic programs with Israel nor will divestment from Israeli-related investments be considered."

Virtue-signalling academics are rushing to side with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. At the University of Massachusetts (UMass), Amherst, the graduate-students’ union, the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO), recently voted to adopt a pro-BDS resolution. This means that the GEO calls on UMass to divest from Israeli institutions and boycott Israeli businesses, and on the US government to cease aiding Israel militarily.

Six faculty members opposed the proposal, saying that taking an official position on BDS will impose an ideological ‘loyalty oath’ on all of the GEO’s members, effectively overruling individuals’ rights to their own opinions on political matters.

Of the GEO’s 2,000 members, only 203 voted – 195 for and eight against. Since then, 27 faculty members from 10 departments have endorsed the decision, saying that, ‘As evidenced by the 95 per cent vote in favour of the resolution, the graduate students were not intimidated’.

It would appear from the lopsided vote that at least some students were intimidated, but according to Levi Adelman, a PhD student in social psychology, it is rare for GEO votes ever to have more than 10 per cent participation. Furthermore, the International Executive Board (IEB) overseeing the United Automobile Workers (UAW) union, of which the GEO is part, has already ruled that BDS resolutions violate the ethical-practices code of the UAW constitution.

At a GEO general-membership meeting, another measure was put to the members: a resolution to condemn ‘anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism’. This was voted down, according to Adelman, ‘on the grounds that it would inhibit BDS and other criticism of Israel, which I take to be a tacit acknowledgement that BDS is fundamentally discriminatory’.

So far UMass president Marty Meehan has not weighed in, and UMass chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy, when asked, simply referred journalists to a statement he made in January 2014. In that statement, Subbaswamy confirmed UMass’s opposition to all academic boycotts, including BDS, saying that they ‘undermine the fundamental principles of free expression and inquiry that are central to our mission of teaching, research and service’. By merely referring to his old statement, while the champions of the resolution are touting a misleading ‘95 per cent’ majority, Subbaswamy dodged his responsibility to exercise leadership on this issue. Could he be intimidated?

Meanwhile, New York University’s graduate-students’ union last week voted 66.5 per cent in favour of a BDS motion calling on the university to divest from and boycott Israeli institutions, and to shut down its Tel Aviv programme. NYU president Andrew Hamilton’s response was firm: ‘A boycott of Israeli academics and institutions is contrary to our core principles of academic freedom, antithetical to the free exchange of ideas, and at odds with the university’s position on this matter, as well as the position of [the graduate-students’ union’s] parent union. NYU will not be closing its academic programme in Tel Aviv, and divestment from Israeli-related investments is not under consideration. And to be clear: whatever “pledges” union members may or may not have taken does not free them from their responsibilities as employees of NYU, which rejects this boycott.’

It is heartening that Hamilton and Subbaswamy are resisting the political fads of the day – Hamilton stoutly, and Subbaswamy at least in principle.  Adhering to the ideals of intellectual freedom ought to be the first job of a college leader. The University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven Committee report puts it well: ‘[The university] cannot insist that all of its members favour a given view of social policy; if it takes collective action, therefore, it does so at the price of censuring any minority who does not agree with the view adopted. In brief, it is a community which cannot resort to majority vote to reach positions on public issues.’

It is inappropriate for a university to play an activist role precisely because doing so takes away individuals’ freedom to advocate for beliefs they personally hold. Again, the Kalven Committee report puts it eloquently: ‘The neutrality of the university as an institution arises, then, not from a lack of courage nor out of indifference and insensitivity. It arises out of respect for free inquiry and the obligation to cherish a diversity of viewpoints.’

The graduate students and faculty members supporting BDS need to understand this. But understanding is not enough. Many of these academics do not care whether minority views are censured. They care only about enforcing top-down groupthink in accordance with their own views. Certainly if the ideology was on the other side of the political spectrum (a resolution in favour of, say, boycotting gay weddings), faculty would begin to worry about minority views.

When it comes to compelling their institutions to take up causes such as BDS, graduate student unions have little leverage. They do have the power of persistent pressure, to which we’ve seen college presidents bow over and over again when faced with other illiberal demands, such as those of the student protesters at the University of MissouriBrown and Georgetown, or the fossil-fuel sitters-in at UMass and Yale. The immediate effect of the UMass BDS resolution was to embolden faculty members who are eager to join the bashing of Israel.

For now, NYU and UMass administrators aren’t caving to the pressure on the BDS front. But college presidents everywhere will need a solid foundation of core principles if they are to resist these hurricane winds of self-righteous outrage in the future.


Image: Manif ! Solidarité avec Gaza by Heri Rakotomalala // CC BY-ND

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