Faculty members protest investigation of sociology professor

UC-Santa Barbara professors circulate petition to halt proceedings against William I. Robinson and reject “outside pressures”

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Date: May 19, 2009
Contact: cdaf.ucsb@gmail.com.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — A group of about 20 professors at the University of California at Santa Barbara have launched a campus-wide petition to get professors, department chairs and deans to join them in protesting the Academic Senate’s investigation of sociology professor William I. Robinson.

The petition, sent on May 16 to faculty throughout the university, says the Senate Charges Committee has directly violated Robinson’s rights by mishandling student complaints against him.

“These procedural improprieties have already produced a substantive injustice with respect to Professor Robinson,” reads the petition. “Moreover, we are concerned that external pressures may have influenced the way this case is managed.”

The case against Robinson began when he introduced materials critical of Israel in a course on global affairs last January.

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 pro-Israel groups to pressure the university to pursue charges of “anti-Semitism” against Robinson.

Those groups, which continue to pressure university officials as the case drags on, include the Anti-Defamation League, the Israel advocacy group Stand With Us, and the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.

The faculty petition calls on the Academic Senate to explain its actions in the Robinson case, make public all communications that Senate leaders and university administrators have had with external organizations or individuals, immediately correct procedural mistakes, conduct inquiries into why those mistakes were made, and take disciplinary action if necessary against those responsible.

It also requests clarification of how student complaints about course content and materials are handled, and it asks the Senate to reaffirm the importance of academic freedom at UCSB.

The petition will be sent to Senate Chair Joel Michaelson before the next Senate meeting on June 6, said Nancy Gallagher, history professor and chair of the Middle East Studies Program.

“The administration has said to trust the system, but this process has stretched on with so many irregularities that it breeds distrust, and the professor has already been seriously damaged, as has the university itself,” Gallagher said. “I thought this case would immediately be dropped for lack of any legitimate cause, but it wasn’t, and frankly the campus is beginning to look like a laughing stock, or a place where one wouldn’t want to be.”

Gallagher said the student complaints should have been referred back down to the department level from the start.

“It should have gone straight to the chair of the department, but instead it went straight to the charges officer, and on that ground alone it should be dropped,” she said. “It sets a bad precedent. What if people decide they don’t like evolution being taught? Can they also censor the professor this easily?”

Lisa Hajjar, chair of UCSB’s Law and Society Program and an authority on the principles and practices of academic freedom, said students often get upset by material presented in classes because the educational process deliberately aims to challenge beliefs and generate debate.

“Contentious material is a legitimate and important part of the educational process,” Hajjar  said. “The intent is to provoke reactions, not shield students from things that might upset them in class.”

Academic freedom is a right enjoyed by faculty, not by students, Hajjar said.

“They are not on equal footing,” she said. “Students can’t dictate course material because they are not qualified to make those determinations. The professors have earned freedom in the classroom because they are experts in their field. In this case, bringing charges for disseminating relevant materials makes no sense.”

Emeritus professor of sociology Dick Flacks said the investigation against Robinson sends a profoundly intimidating message to all other professors.

“It has a chilling effect on what you can say in class,” Flacks said. “It says that if students don’t like what you’re presenting they can get you brought up on charges. That stops effective teaching dead in its tracks.”

Flacks said he expects Robinson to be exonerated by the Academic Senate, but at this point, that’s not enough.

“It’s the very fact that charges were brought that has upset people so much,” Flacks said. “We want an inquiry into why these charges were brought and an investigation of the outside pressures that may have influenced this case. We want to clarify how these kinds of grievances should be handled to avoid more situations like this in the future.”

For detailed information about the Robinson case, visit the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom Web site at http://www.sb4af.wordpress.com.

For media inquiries, email cdaf.ucsb@gmail.com.

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