Academic backlash grows against investigation of sociology professor

American Association of University Professors and other scholarly organizations weigh in on UCSB proceedings

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May 14, 2009

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The decision by the Academic Senate at the University of California at Santa Barbara to open a formal investigation into “anti-Semitism” charges against sociology professor William I. Robinson has garnered worldwide attention.

Print and broadcast media nationwide have published numerous stories about the issue, and the Associated Press released an article that appeared in most major papers in the U.S. and others countries.

At the same time, scholars and academic organizations worldwide have sent hundreds of letters to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang and the Academic Senate condemning the investigation as a violation of academic freedom and demanding that it be dropped.

Richard Falk, the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories and a visiting scholar on global studies at UCSB, said the university is seriously hurting its reputation.

“The situation is known throughout the world,” Falk said. “I was asked about it by academics while visiting the University of Freiburg in Germany. UC-Santa Barbara is gaining a notoriety that is not good.”

Scholars are particularly concerned the investigation may have begun under pressure from the pro-Israel lobby. The Academic Senate announced its decision to pursue formal proceedings on March 25, two weeks after Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman met with UCSB officials and faculty on campus. At the meeting, Foxman demanded that Robinson be censored for introducing materials critical of Israeli state policies in a course on global affairs.

The materials included a photo essay that Robinson forwarded to students from the Internet juxtaposing images of Israeli abuse against Palestinians with Nazi abuses during the holocaust. Two students took offense at the images and withdrew from the course, prompting the ADL to pressure the university to investigate Robinson for “anti-Semitism.”

The Washington, D.C.-based American Association of University Professors is the latest to weigh in on the issue. The century-old, 47,000-member association recommended that the university try to resolve the matter without formal proceedings.

“The publicity this case is receiving has, for better or worse, enhanced its implications for fundamental principles of academic freedom, calling for special care in affording the protections of academic due process,” said the association in a May 11 letter to the chancellor and the Academic Senate. “We propose that the senate’s committee pause at this juncture and that the administration make further effort to reach a resolution, before proceeding to a formal inquiry.”

The Middle East Studies Association of North America sent a letter on May 8 to Academic Senate Chair Joel Michaelsen expressing “grave concerns” about the investigation. MESA, founded in 1966, publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 3,000 members worldwide.

“Specifically, we are troubled by the university’s willingness to open an investigation into Professor Robinson’s conduct based on criticism of his views by students, by an apparent lack of due process and adherence to university procedures, and by the possibility that outside interference influenced the decision to move forward with an official investigation despite strong evidence suggesting that the claims that Robinson had committed violations of the Faculty Code of Conduct were without merit,” Mesa said.

The North American chapter of the Global Studies Association — a professional association with membership from around the world — urged immediate dismissal of all charges against Robinson as “frivolous and malicious.”

“Attacks against scholars who criticize the policies of the Israeli government have turned into a national witch-hunt,” said the association in a May 10 letter to the chancellor. “A critique of the Israeli state, its policies, and the leaders responsible is not and should not be considered an affront to the Jewish people, the Jewish religion, or Jewish heritage.”

Sondra Hale, a UCLA professor and the founder and coordinator of California Scholars for Academic Freedom, said the charges against Robinson are particularly concerning to scholars throughout the UC system.

“To allow these charges to be brought is outrageous,” Hale said. “It can and should have been stopped from the beginning, and to open it up to outside lobbyists is completely unacceptable and inappropriate. Scholars throughout California are closely watching the situation.”

For detailed information about the Robinson case, visit the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom Web site at

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