Opinions and Letters
Santa Barbara New Press
William I. Robinson
May 31, 2009 8:07 AM
Academic freedom is under attack at the University of California.
The university mission itself hangs in the balance as university officials pursue charges of faculty misconduct against me for having introduced course material critical of the Israeli invasion of Gaza.
Officials at UC Santa Barbara, where I teach sociology, have engaged in disturbing irregularities in handling the allegations against me, and they may be bending to pressure from prominent groups in the Israel lobby.
Last January, I introduced Internet material into my course on global affairs that included an article critical of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and a photo essay that juxtaposed graphic images of Nazi atrocities against Jews and Israeli atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza.
Some press reports have mistakenly said that I compared these graphic images. I did not. I forwarded the photo essay from the Internet, where it had been circulating in the public realm for several weeks.
Two students (out of 80 enrolled) objected to the photo essay and withdrew from the course. In conjunction with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the students lodged a grievance against me with the Academic Senate, charging that the material is anti-Semitic and unrelated to the course.
The charges are without merit. Criticism of the Israeli state cannot be equated with anti-Semitism. Moreover, it defies logic to argue that discussion of the Israeli-Palestine conflict is unrelated to a course on global affairs.
Nevertheless, the Academic Senate initiated disciplinary proceedings against me. That action so outraged students on campus that they formed a Committee to Defend Academic Freedom, which is cherished as the life-blood of any university.
As defined by the American Association of University Professors, academic freedom includes the right of faculty to openly discuss all subjects in the classroom free from institutional censorship, discipline or other forms of restrictive interference in teaching, research, speaking and publishing, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead. Effective teaching requires broad ability for professors to select and approach course content and illustrate its significance, such as drawing analogies between current and historical events.
It would undermine the mission if we did not attempt to jar students into critical thinking — even when it makes students uncomfortable to the point of outrage — by introducing controversial material in the classroom.
From the start, the Israel lobby has worked with the students and has placed direct pressure on university officials.
The ADL sent a protest letter to me and to university officials on Feb. 9, before the students even lodged their grievances with the Academic Senate.
Then, on March 9, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman personally convened a meeting on campus with university faculty and administrators to urge the university to prosecute me. Two weeks later, the Academic Senate Charges Office told me it would open a formal investigation into the student allegations.
The ADL pressure comes as little surprise. Decades ago, that organization led a sincere fight against anti-Semitism. In recent years, however, it has become little more than a lobbying front for the Israeli state to censure any effort to expose the Palestinian plight and to stifle debate on the Israeli-Palestine conflict.
There is well-documented history of ADL’s improper and illegal political surveillance and harassment of those who voice objection to Israeli policies. That includes a scandal in California in the mid-1990s in which the ADL illegally hired police officers to spy on several hundred organizations and thousands of individuals.
Outside groups with political agendas have no business interfering in university matters to control the content of education. Such McCarthyist interference undermines the integrity of the university and spurs an environment of intimidation and censorship on campus that will affect not just me, but the entire university community. It sets a dangerous precedent that will make faculty and students fearful to raise controversial issues in the classroom in the future.
I expect to be fully vindicated in this matter. But more than that, I call on the university to commit itself publicly and in the strongest possible terms to upholding academic freedom and the right of all members of the university community to discuss controversial issues in an environment free of censorship and the threat of sanctions.
The author is professor of sociology, global studies, and Latin American studies at UCSB.
Opinions and Letters