Stories about academic freedom: Brown, Brandeis and University of Montana

The American Association of University Professors’ bimonthly publication, Academe, features a fascinating range of first person accounts about the battle for academic freedom as it relates to US-Israeli policy.

That major academic publications are increasingly dedicating more space to this topic is further proof that attempts to silence and intimidate often backfire, and are signs not of strength, but at times of outright panic.

Brown University
Elliott Colla, an associate professor of comparative literature at Brown, writes a first-hand account of the challenges he and his Bryant colleague Marsha Pripstein Posusney faced when they decided to put on a symposium at Brown called “The Study of the Middle East and Islam: Challenges after 9-11”.

In a meeting in April, Brown Students for Israel, a pro-Likud “Israel advocacy” group,met with organizers from the David Project and, according to students present at the meeting, our workshop was one of the foci of discussion. The David Project is the organization that played the leading role in surreptitious efforts to record classroom discussions at Columbia University a few years ago and, along with the conservative group Campus Watch, was largely responsible for the vicious ad hominem attacks on Arab and Muslim faculty in the Middle East and Asian languages and cultures department there. At the campus meeting, Serena Eisenberg, the Hillel rabbi (an employee of the Brown chaplain’s office), encouraged students to intervene “confrontationally” at the workshop and to record clandestinely the presentations of the speakers.

Rabbi Eisenberg singled out participants Stephen Walt and Juan Cole for particular concern, and further criticized Colla for accepting money from the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA) at Brown. (In fact, the funds had come from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

Colla describes the escalation of attacks, and the involvement of Campus Watch. In the end, Brown students, including those who are a part of campus Hillel, are a diverse group. It would seem that some were deeply unhappy with Rabbi Eisenberg’s campaign: just a few days later she resigned her post.

University of Montana

History chair Richard Drake tells his story in On Being Called An Anti-Semite in Montana. It’s a fairly typical example of how it has come to pass that simply inviting a speaker to a campus can require extraordinary acts of courage. In his case, he invited University of Chicago political scientist and The Israel Lobby co-author John Mearsheimer to speak in the 2006–07 President’s Lecture Series:

In the twenty years that I have coordinated the lecture series, I have invited more than two hundred speakers to the campus. Walt was the first one to be welcomed with a preemptive barrage of defamatory invective from faculty members.

On September 7, 2006, four days before Walt’s scheduled arrival, three tenured full professors—two of them from my own department—denounced him in an open letter to the president of the university, George M. Dennison. The letter appeared in the student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin. Comparing his views to those expressed in the notorious anti-Semitic forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, they castigated Walt as the author of an ugly racist diatribe and demanded that the university invite Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz or some comparable defender of Israel to offer a rebuttal. Failure to do so would “leave a dark stain on the President’s Lecture Series and the university itself.”

One of my critics told me before startled witnesses that he would not rest until I had been stripped of my position of power, which manifestly had corrupted me. Someone as insensitive to Jewish issues as I was could no longer be entrusted to coordinate a university lecture series. He initiated a campaign to bring about my dismissal.

Brandeis

In Jimmy Carter, Palestinian Art, and Brandeis, Brandeis history department chair Paul Jankowski grapples with the various issues that have confronted Brandeis of late: an art exhibit of Palestinian children’s artwork that was removed, and the controversial appearance of Jimmy Carter.

The principle, to my mind, is simple enough—to allow expression on campus when it is not hateful or defamatory or threatening, and to encourage it when it is civil and open-minded and of probable interest to some members of the community. The devil lies in the practice. What is the proper response to expression that falls short of hate but provokes offense among some or distaste among many? What right of regard, in such circumstances, do faculty and administrators have over student expression on campus? When does “advice” or “guidance” become in effect a form of gatekeeping and censorship? Is the right to speech outside the classroom substantially broader than inside, and if so is it akin to that beyond the campus, in the republic?

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