Profs from top universities say no to false charges of anti-Semitism, attacks on academic freedom

Inside Higher Education reports on a new effort organized by Joan W. Scott from the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, N.J., and former chair of the American Association of University Professors’ Committee on Academic Freedom; Jeremy Adelman, a historian from Princeton; Steve Caton, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard; Edmund Burke III, director of the Center for World History at the University of California at Santa Cruz; and Jonathan R. Cole, provost emeritus of Columbia University.

Saying that they are fed up with “aggressive incursion of partisan politics into universities’ hiring and tenure practices,” five prominent academics have issued a call to “defend the university” and gathered dozens of backers in what they view as a new way to bolster academic freedom.

The Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University has issued a statement and is asking professors and others to sign on.

The statement makes a general call for academic freedom, and defense of the university against outside political pressure. They make absolutely clear the source of most of these attacks:

Unfortunately and ironically, many of the most vociferous campaigns targeting universities and their faculty have been launched by groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel. These groups have targeted scholars who have expressed perspectives on Israeli policies and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with which they disagree. To silence those they consider their political enemies, they have used a range of tactics such as:

  • unfounded insinuations and allegations, in the media and on websites, of anti-Semitism or
    sympathy for terrorism or “un-Americanism;”
  • efforts to broaden definitions of anti-Semitism to include scholarship and teaching that is critical of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and of Israel;
  • pressures on university administrations by threatening to withhold donations if faculty they have targeted are hired or awarded tenure;
  • campaigns to deny scholars the opportunity to present their views to the wider public;
  • the promotion of efforts to restrict federal funding for area studies programs and the teaching of critical languages on political grounds;
  • lawsuits in the name of the “right” of individual students not to hear ideas that may challenge or contradict their beliefs;
  • and demands in the name of “balance” and “diversity” that those with whom they disagree be prevented from speaking unless paired with someone whose viewpoint they approve of

Scott told Inside Higher Ed:

…the statement came about because “a number of us were just fed up with the amount of pressure that groups which claim to be defending Israel are exerting.” Citing such cases as the anthropologist at Barnard, Scott said “outside political groups are trying to force the hand of university administrators in ways we think are really dangerous.”

The scholars in these cases deserve tough scrutiny, Scott said, but it should come from scholars in their disciplines — their departments and the outside experts recruited by their departments for evaluations — not from the public or people in other fields. She said that critics of these professors imply unfairly that their work is never reviewed, when their books would never have been published without thorough peer review and they never would have been hired without intense questioning about their scholarship and teaching.

“It is the prerogative and responsibility of the members of the discipline to make these judgments,” she said. “It’s not as if people get a free pass. It’s that at every stage, the review has to be within the discipline.”

She said, for instance, that it would not bother her if Alan Dershowitz offered opinions on law professors, but that he should not have been evaluating Finkelstein, a political scientist. As a general rule, she said, “biologists shouldn’t tell historians how to interpret Middle Eastern history and historians shouldn’t tell biologists what good biology is.”

Sign the petition here.

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