Connecticut College Must Defend, Not Denounce, Professor Pessin

National Association of Scholars

New York (June 24, 2015) – The National Association condemns the vilification of Professor Andrew Pessin of Connecticut College and calls on President Katherine Bergeron to make clear to students and faculty members that diversity of opinion is a prerequisite for the pursuit of knowledge, and that attempts to intimidate and silence faculty for expressing unpopular opinions will not be tolerated.

In August 2014, while Israel was engaged in military operations against Hamas in Gaza, Professor Pessin, a member of the philosophy department at the college, wrote on his Facebook page that in Gaza “you’ve got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.” Six months later, a student who wrongly believed Pessin was referring to the Palestinian people rather than to Hamas – which in its charter calls for the extermination of Jews – accused him of racism. Pessin apologized and removed the offending post. Nevertheless, the student, who was the Chair of Diversity and Equity on the Executive Board of the Student Government at the college, repeated her charge in the student newspaper.

The result was a long series of condemnations of Professor Pessin by 476 faculty members, students, and administrators who signed and posted 45 “community statements,” on the college’s website. The History Department’s statement, for example, said that Pessin’s posting was “speech filled with bigotry and hate” and used “dehumanizing language as a means to justify brutality.” Of the 46 academic departments at Connecticut College, 41 of them (89 percent) signed such denunciations.

President Bergeron convened a campus-wide colloquium on the importance in academia of the principles of community and inclusion. While she very properly defended freedom of speech, she nonetheless repeated the allegation that Pessin’s posting was “bigoted and hateful.” In the weeks that followed, death threats against the professor continued, and he was forced to take a medical leave of absence.

NAS has no official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nor does it presume, as an organization concerned with American higher education, to judge the accuracy of Professor Pessin’s characterization of Hamas. What concerns NAS is the readiness of many students, faculty, and administrators, not just at Connecticut College but on college campuses across America, to seek to suppress opinions they disagree with by condemning them as racist or bigoted and thus beyond the pale of acceptable expression. In fact, such charges are meant to intimidate – to shut down debate instead of fostering it. To NAS this is unacceptable. Students attend college for the purpose of being challenged, which means listening to opinions different from their own and formulating arguments in response to them. Faculty members and administrators have the obligation to inform students of this, and to ensure that these foundational principles of education are adhered to. NAS calls on President Bergeron and her administration at Connecticut College to do precisely that.

“Connecticut College has an important opportunity to exemplify devotion to academic freedom in the face of controversy,” said Peter Wood, president of the NAS. “We hope it doesn’t let this opportunity go to waste.”

About the National Association of Scholars

The National Association of Scholars is a network of scholars and citizens united by their commitment to academic freedom, disinterested scholarship, and excellence in American higher education. It upholds the standards of a liberal arts education that fosters intellectual freedom, searches for the truth, and promotes virtuous citizenship.

Contact: Peter Wood, President
(917) 551-6770, [email protected]

Image: Connecticut College by slacker12 // CC BY

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