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Karen Hitchcock: A Threat to Academic Freedom

Early in my tenure as head of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, I – like many other university presidents – was asked to support the agenda of a Palestinian initiative known as B.D.S., a call for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel, given the organization’s belief that Israel was not complying with international law and Palestinian rights. Specifically, they were asking for our university’s participation in a boycott of Israeli universities ... a request I unequivocally rejected as being antithetical to the concept of academic freedom which is at the very heart of the mission of a university -           institutions devoted to unfettered inquiry and discovery. 

While most on the campus supported the position I took back in 2005, others mistakenly characterized my statement as political and pro-Israel,  unrelated to the protection of academic freedom,  a risk I knew I was taking when I made my response to this Palestinian request. Interestingly, during this time of impassioned discussion and debate across Canada, I had the opportunity to meet with the President of a Palestinian University who was a guest on our campus. He clearly understood the position I had taken, and he shared my concern to find ways to guarantee the exercise of academic freedom at all universities – Palestinian and Israeli, alike.

Recently, this boycott movement has found some support in a number of US scholarly associations, including the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. The members of these three associations have voted to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions called for by a broad coalition of Palestinian non-governmental organizations purportedly representing the Palestinian people. In the United States, this Palestinian call for an academic boycott against Israel has been promulgated by an organization known as the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. The organizations involved continue to emphasize that the boycott is meant to be against the academic institution as a whole, not individual scholars. However, it is difficult to imagine how one would not affect the other. To quote the American Studies Association statement after their December, 2013 vote, “The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom, and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.”

While I and many of my colleagues do not support any constraints which might exist in academic collaborations with Palestinian universities, we do not subscribe to “boycott” as a productive response. Lines of communication need to be expanded, not closed off.  The response to this action by these three US associations has been swift and far-reaching. All the major academic associations in this country have repudiated this call for a boycott, and college leaders have been quite vocal in their opposition. Michael Roth, President of Wesleyan University said that the ASA’s boycott is “… a repugnant attack on academic freedom;” and, Michael McRobbie, President of Indiana University condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the decision to support a boycott, and he called on these three associations “to rescind this dangerous and ill-conceived action.” Indeed, two prior presidents of the American Studies Association itself have come out in opposition to a boycott. In their words, “Instead of cutting off debate, we should be enriching it, strengthening engagement with Palestinian academics… .” Of great interest is the fact that even in Palestine, some faculty leaders have spoken out against such a boycott. As reported in the New York Times, while certainly in the minority, these Palestinian scholars, like the vast majority of US academics, see this action as restricting the kind of intellectual exchange which can only help to break down cultural and political barriers. Here in New York, two bills have been introduced in response to this call for a boycott, one by Speaker Silver, the other by Senator Jeff Klein. Both bills would forbid the use of state funds to support organizations in favor of such boycotts.

Other scholarly organizations in the US are still debating this critical issue; and, while this discussion continues, I would urge that any strategies proposed – like academic boycotts -  which weaken the commitment of our nation’s universities to academic freedom, to the ability to express different points of view with no fear of reprisal, be rigorously opposed.  The future of our academic institutions is at stake, as is the future of all the freedoms we cherish.

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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