Sunday, December 09, 2007

Color Me Israeli? Boycott the University I Run?

Recently the UK Union of Universities and Colleges (UCU) undertook to discuss the introduction of a motion to boycott Israeli universities.

If you are among the select few Americans who have even heard of the UCU or about its discussing a potential boycott motion, you might have shrugged and immediately forgotten about it. After all, the UCU is a UK union. The UCU is only discussing possibly introducing such a motion. No such motion has been tabled, voted on, or passed by the UCU. No university or academic has been boycotted or even threatened with boycott on the basis of the UCU's actions thus far. No US university or academic union is considering even discussion of a boycott in solidarity with the UCU's discussion.

Nonetheless some US university administrators are apparently much exercised about the UCU even discussing a proposed boycott. Scholars for Peace in the Middle-East (SPME) organized a petition against the UCU's actions, signed by a number of Nobel laureates and university presidents. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) organized around a statement by President Lee Bollinger of Columbia and took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times (Aug. 08, 2007, pp. A13). The AJC advertisement was endorsed by, in its own words, “college and university presidents and chancellors, and applied to their own campuses" (emphasis mine). Bollinger's statement calls for a boycott of Columbia University by those who disagreed with him.


Bollinger and administrators of other private universities may have the freedom to engage in prior restraint of free speech on their campuses, to misuse the imprimatur of their university, to pass off as university policy their personal opinions, to neglect their fiduciary responsibility to their university by calling for it to be boycotted. Public university administrators do not enjoy such expansive freedoms. In the case of the University of California (UC), Chancellors who endorsed the AJC advertisement are in violation of CA state law as well as UC regulations. For example, under CA Education Code Section 92000(a)(3), UC administrators are explicitly prohibited by law from using the UC name to act for or against any boycott, without prior permission of the UC Regents. No such permission appears to have been sought by any of the endorsing UC Chancellors, and I can state this definitively in respect of the Chancellors of UC Berkeley, UC Irvine, and UC San Diego, on the basis of the official response of their campuses to a CA Public Records Act (CPRA) request).

Bollinger's febrile imagination produces such purple and overwrought prose as “Boycott Israeli Universities? Boycott Ours Too!” Bollinger is “profoundly disturbed” by the UCU acting to “advance” (in reality the UCU is only discussing the possible introduction of such a motion!) “a boycott against Israeli academic institutions”. And stepping off the edge altogether, Bollinger calls for a boycott of Columbia University, writing: “if the British UCU is intent on pursuing its deeply misguided policy, then it should add Columbia to its boycott list, for we do not intend to draw distinctions between our mission and that of the universities you are seeking to punish.” So we don't lose sight of reality, as Bollinger appears to have, it is worth reiterating that the “misguided [UCU] policy” Bollinger rails against is a move by the UCU to discuss whether or not to introduce a motion to boycott Israeli universities. For reasons unclear from his arguments, Bollinger rants on about the UCU's actions being “intellectually shoddy and politically biased attempts to hijack the central mission of higher education.” The irony of muzzling the free speech rights of those who disagree with him on the basis of “the central mission of higher education” escapes Bollinger. One believes that questioning received wisdom, including Bollinger's, is central to the mission of all education. And surely discussing whether Israeli universities ought to be boycotted is well within the mission of higher education.

University of California at Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau not only signed on to Bollinger's statement, he went on to “organize an initiative” to round up other university presidents and chancellors to endorse Bollinger's statements via the AJC advertisement.
The AJC advertisement states that “This statement has been endorsed by the following college and university presidents and chancellors, and applied to their own campuses". Is there to be a loyalty oath for all students, faculty, and staff at the listed universities affirming this piece of righthink? Are those who disagree and insist on thinking otherwise to be prosecuted on charges of thoughtcrime?

The following University of California Chancellors took it on themselves to endorse he AJC ad, without seeking the permission of the UC Regents or the guidance of the UC Office of General Counsel:

  1. UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau
  2. UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake
  3. UC Los Angeles Chancellor Norman Abrams
  4. UC San Diego Chancellor Marye Anne Fox
Given that the UCU is only discussing the introduction of a motion to boycott Israeli universities, Bollinger's cries and that of his endorsers that “The end is nigh, but we have a plan! Boycott the universities we run.” is at the least extremely premature. And what do Mr. Bollinger and his endorsers make of Ilan Pappe, respected Israeli academic and historian who has publicly stated his support of a boycott of Israeli universities? Or of Haaretz commentator Benny Tziper who suggests that as a result of a boycott “finally some of our arrogant professors will start to feel a tiny drop of the feelings of Palestinian professors whose academic freedom is routinely crushed under the force of Israeli occupation”?

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