Academic Freedom Vindicated in BrooklynBy STANLEY FISH
Debates about academic freedom almost always begin in confusion and end in confusion, but the recent controversy at Brooklyn College is a welcome exception to that rule. When the dust settled, the right thing had happened, the right things had been said, and the wrong things had been repudiated.
First, what happened. On Thursday evening, Feb. 7, in a forum co-sponsored by a student group and the Department of Political Science, Judith Butler of the University of California, Berkeley, and the Palestinian activist Omar Barghouti explained and defended the agenda of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement ( B.D.S.). The point of the movement, said Butler to an audience of several hundred, “is to withdraw funds and support from major financial and cultural institutions that support the operations of the Israeli state and its military.” (The transcript of Butler’s addresswas published at The Nation.com).
Among the cultural institutions a boycott might target are those Israeli universities that are judged to be either actively in league with the government’s policies toward the Palestinians, or complicit with those policies by virtue of remaining silent while they are being implemented. To the charge that a boycott of academic institutions is a violation of academic freedom, B.D.S. supporters reply that because the state of Israel abrogates the academic freedom of Palestinian professors and students (by denying them funding, access and mobility), it is an affirmation, not a derogation, of academic freedom to refrain from engaging in intellectual commerce with Israeli universities. You can’t invoke academic freedom, they say, when you’re denying it to others. So the lines of battle are set with both sides claiming to be academic freedom’s champion, and it is easy to see why a college might be thought to be an appropriate venue for a discussion of the matter.
But a number of New York city politicians didn’t see it that way, and they proceeded to say the predictable wrong things. On Jan. 29, nine members of the Council of the City of New York wrote in a letter to the president of Brooklyn College, Karen L. Gould, to declare that, along with others, they found it “offensive” that the college was giving “official support and sponsorship to speakers who equate terrorists with progressives and the Israeli people with Nazis.” Indeed so offended were they that they reminded Gould, in a tone of unmistakable threat, that as legislators they had many calls on the funds at their disposal, and that by persisting in its plan to host the event, the college risked financial loss: ‘We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our city…want their tax money to be spent on.”
The answer to this is simple: taxpayers, through their representatives, decide whether to support a college, but once that decision has been made in the affirmative, taxpayers and their representatives must allow the institution they have created to carry out its mission, which is not to reflect or ratify the ideas the public favors, but to subject all ideas, including those the public dislikes, to the scrutiny of rational deliberation. It can’t be the case that a program or a course must be approved by popular vote before a college can sponsor it or put it in the catalog. What taxpayers have bought when they fund an institution of higher education is the independent judgment of credentialed teachers and scholars. If they wanted an echo chamber that sent their own views back to them, they could have funded a talk-radio show,
At the end of their misguided letter, the nine council members declared that “We believe in the principle of academic freedom.” But then, in the very next sentence, they revealed a total misunderstanding of the principle they claimed to espouse: “However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.” Or, in other words, you can freely say anything as long as it is something we approve. (Who elected these guys?)
Another team of worthies, self-described as “progressive elected officials,” proved equally adept at making fools of themselves. Their Jan. 31st letter to President Gould (who must have been wondering which politician she was going to hear from next) began, “We collectively believe that the B.D.S. movement is a wrongheaded and destructive one, and an obstacle to our collective hope for a peaceful two state solution.” This is ( to use their own word ) wrongheaded in two ways. First, what they believe about the Middle East conflict would be relevant were they voting on an appropriation (three of them are members of Congress), but neither they nor their beliefs have any relevance to a college’s decision to invite and/or approve an outside speaker. Were Brooklyn College to alter its behavior because of the beliefs of “progressive elected officials,” or anyone else for that matter, it would at that moment become a political rather than an educational institution.
Second (and in the same vein), while individual faculty members might have views about the desirability or feasibility of a two-state solution, the college that employs them cannot appropriately express a view or imply an endorsement of one by welcoming some speakers and excluding others. Nothing a college does should be done with the intent of furthering a two-state solution or any other; that’s not the business it is in.
I am not saying that the college should be neutral, but that the college should not have political issues on its radar at all except as possible objects of academic analysis. The trouble with invoking neutrality, as many who objected to the program did, is that the next step is to demand “balance” and the equal representation of all viewpoints, precisely the demand made by the “progressive” (read hopelessly confused) officials when they complained that the event as planned excluded “alternative positions” and was therefore “one-sided.” But “balance” is a political, not an academic requirement; it looks not to the intellectual interest of a proposed topic, but to the political interest of appeasing various constituencies.
When academics consider what materials to include in a syllabus or what programs to sponsor on a campus, their concern is the illumination and edification of students. Would it help them to read this? Is this point of view one they should hear because to be ignorant of it would be to have a gap in their knowledge? (Note too that introducing students to a point of view signals neither approval nor disapproval of it.) But when academics look nervously to external constituencies in making their pedagogical choices — I had better include one of these or Alan Dershowitz is going to come after me — the choices they make are no longer academic; they have abandoned the search for truth and are instead searching for political approval. The progressive officials declare that refusing “to permit all voices to be heard … is the antithesis of academic freedom.” No, the antithesis of academic freedom is the demand — in the sense of you must do this — that all voices be heard, for that is to be dictating from the outside (and for blatantly political reasons) how a class or an extracurricular event should be configured. (The choice of how many voices to include is the prerogative of the teacher or conference organizer, not of a congressman or member of the city council.)
These two public efforts at intimidation drew a vigorous response from educational experts and from officials at Brooklyn College and its parent, the City University of New York. President Gould hit the nail on the head — and put a nail into the coffin of the overreaching politicians — when she explained in a statement that “Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views.” Or, in other words, you just don’t understand what goes on in a college or university. Barbara Bowen, president of CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, in a letter to the hapless public officials, skewered the “balance” argument: “Academic freedom is ‘the free search for truth and its free exposition.’ Academic freedom is not ‘balance’; it is not the requirement that departments support only forums that advocate equally strongly for two ‘sides.’ ”
But the coup de grace was delivered on Feb. 6 by Mayor Michael Bloomberg who hung back (as Christine Quinn did not) so that he could deliver the fatal blow. He began by saying that “he could not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic they choose” and, in a direct hit at his less astute fellow politicians, he declared that “[t]he last thing we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs out public universities run … I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and the students.”
By the time the event occurred and went off smoothly, some of the hasty signatories to the two letters had withdrawn their names and others had softened their stance. Had they been in attendance, they would have heard Judith Butler give a letter-perfect account of what academic freedom is. She said to the assembled audience, “I presume that you came to hear what there is to be said, and so to test your preconceptions against what some people have to say, to see whether your objections can be met and your questions answered … and if the arguments you hear are not convincing, you will be able to cite them, to develop your opposing views and to communicate that as you wish.” Whether they heard Butler or not, as an academic I hope that the City Council members and representatives learned something in the course of this tempest-in-a-teapot; but as an observer of the behavior of politicians, I doubt it.