Faculty Legislature votes to examine how charges against sociology professor were handled and recommend policy changes
Date: June 8, 2009
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — The Academic Senate at the University of California at Santa Barbara approved motions to investigate evident mismanagement of student complaints against sociology professor William I. Robinson and recommend changes in Senate procedures to avoid improprieties in the future.
The Senate approved the motions in an open meeting on June 4, after more than 100 faculty members across campus, plus 20 department heads, signed a petition protesting the university’s handling of accusations against Robinson.
The professor is under investigation for alleged violation of the Faculty Code of Conduct after introducing 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 the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and other pro-Israel groups to pressure the university to pursue charges of “anti-Semitism” against Robinson.
More than 80 faculty members filled the June 4 Senate meeting, said emeritus professor of sociology Dick Flacks, who helped draft the petition in support of Robinson.
“The meeting was filled to overflowing with people from many departments across campus, but the motions passed without dissent,” Flacks said. “It indicates a general sentiment among faculty that something wrong happened in the treatment of the Robinson case. I’ve been here 40 years, but I can’t remember such a remarkably unified consensus. People clearly believe this case was wrongly handled.”
The Senate approved creation of two ad hoc committees, one to investigate the handling of the Robinson case and another to review Senate procedures for managing student complaints and recommend changes for the future, said Nancy Gallagher, history professor and chair of the Middle East Studies Program.
“We need answers about why the charges against Robinson were deemed serious enough to merit a Senate investigation when all he did was forward an e-mail to students in his global studies class,” Gallagher said. “The committee also needs to investigate external pressures in this case and conflicts of interest by faculty who processed the complaints against Robinson.”
The petitioners are concerned that the ADL and other pro-Israel groups pushed the Senate to pursue the case.
ADL National Director Abraham Foxman, for example, met with UCSB officials and faculty to demand that the Senate censure Robinson two weeks before the investigation formally began. The Israel advocacy organization “Stand With Us” also organized a massive letter campaign that includes threats by university donors to cut off funding.
Gallagher said the ad hoc committee that investigates Senate procedures should review how student complaints are processed.
“This case has gone on for months now with no end in sight,” Gallagher said “the university has a lot to answer for.”
The faculty also wants the Senate to reinforce the existing procedure in the faculty code of conduct that calls for student complaints to be handled by the relevant department chair, dean, or the ombuds before being accepted for consideration by the Senate, Gallagher said. In the Robinson case, the Charges Committee simply ignored the written procedure and went straight to a formal investigation.
Meanwhile, the Senate approved a separate resolution to sponsor a campus-wide conference on academic freedom next fall to turn the current situation into a learning experience, Gallagher said.
However, no formal discussion of the Robinson case occurred, because Senate Chair Joel Michaelsen said the case is ongoing and legal considerations prevented its public airing.
Even so, some spontaneous discussion erupted at the meeting, said French and Italian professor Claudio Fogu, another petition organizer.
“It was the elephant in the room that couldn’t be ignored,” Fogu said. “Participants were very critical of the entire investigation process and very supportive of Robinson.”
Flacks said the open discussion may make university officials more aware of faculty concerns.
“It sent a message about how faculty hope this case will be resolved,” Flacks said. “A lot of faculty expressed real regret about how Robinson has been hurt.”
For detailed information about the Robinson case, visit the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom Web site at http://www.sb4af.wordpress.com.
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