Support Academic Freedom at CUNY

We the undersigned write in support of the decision by Brooklyn College’s political science department to co-sponsor a panel discussion with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti. We urge CUNY President Karen Gould to resist attempts by those who have attempted to intimidate CUNY into canceling, changing, or withdrawing its sponsorship for the panel. We are especially concerned that the New York City Council has threatened to withhold further money for CUNY if it does not either cancel the event or withdraw its sponsorship. This is a grave threat to academic freedom and sets a terrible precedent for the future.


Background: At Brooklyn College, a student chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine organized a forthcoming panel with Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti to discuss the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The political science department agreed to co-sponsor it. When certain individuals hostile to BDS heard about this event they raised an outcry. The outcry started with Alan Dershowitz, who demanded that the political science department either withdraw its sponsorship or ‘balance’ it with a voice – namely his – that is critical of the panelists. Very quickly this became a city and state-wide issue, and various politicians, including City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, began to make the same demands. Now, quite disturbingly, the New York City Council is threatening to withhold future funding for CUNY unless the political science department either cancels the event or withdraws its sponsorship. Here is the letter from Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler to CUNY President Karen Gould making the threat: http://www.scribd.com/doc/123394756/Letter-from-Lew-Fidler

Reasons: We feel that it is very important for academics and concerned citizens everywhere to send a clear message in defense of CUNY’s academic freedom and against this attempt to intimidate the political science department. To be clear, we do not necessarily agree with the BDS movement nor with the personal opinions of Professor Butler or Mr. Barghouti. But our agreement with the views of the panelists or those of its organizers is not the issue. What is at issue is the academic freedom of CUNY’s political science department to sponsor whatever panels it sees fit. Nor is this a matter of the department’s endorsement of the views on the panel. Departmental sponsorship is not the same as endorsement. Sponsorship just indicates agreement to allow students to organize a panel discussion under the department’s auspices. This is a point CUNY President Karen Gould made at her public remarks at Hillel this weekend (http://bit.ly/UQCkwu).

Nor, as some outside parties say, is the panel problematic because of lack of ‘balance.’ Not every university event needs to represent every side of the issue. Serious and deep inquiry would be impossible if that were the case. It is perfectly legitimate for any given panel to have speakers that share certain assumptions so they can go deeper into the issue they discuss. A panel on evolution could quite reasonably be composed of two evolutionary scientists and no creationists, or two creationists and no evolutionary scientists. A panel could reasonably comprise two Zionists. The claim of lack of ‘balance’ here is, instead, an attempt to make an unreasonable demand that CUNY sacrifice its academic freedom and succumb to external pressure appear reasonable.

Finally, there would be cause for concern if this panel reflected departmental discrimination against a political view – for instance, if it refused to sponsor panels that represent pro-Zionist views. However, while some have made this allegation, there is no evidence of this bias. That is because no evidence exists. In fact, as a statement from the Chair of the political science department makes abundantly clear, the department is open to “requests to co-sponsor speakers and events from all student groups, departments, and programs.” (http://bit.ly/12a8jfp) The discrimination claim is just another attempt to make an unjustified attack on academic freedom appear to be something other than it is – a smear tactic and campaign of intimidation. In fact, further evidence of the censorious nature of the external pressure is that, instead of offering to organize or participate in their own panels and events, outside groups and politicians have attempted to intimidate, harass, and suppress this panel discussion. As the previously mentioned statement by the Chair observes, “since this controversy broke, no group has contacted the political science chair requesting the department's co-sponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views.” Outside groups and politicians have sought only to impose their will on CUNY and its event.

Academic freedom is a principle of self-determination. It is threatened not just when outside groups and government officials try to cancel an event but when they try to change an event and impose their own standards of acceptability. A school administration shows its commitment to academic freedom not in the easiest cases but in the hardest ones: when it has to stand up to enormous, sometimes coercive pressure, and defend unpopular views with which the administrators might personally disagree. That is why an unflinching and uncompromising defense of the department's right to sponsor the event is necessary. We hope President Gould continues to defend the department against its outside detractors, and we lend our support to that cause.

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