An Open Letter to Members of the Society for the Study of Social Problems

The Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), a multidisciplinary faculty organization that opposes academic boycotts and supports a two-state solution that would facilitate political self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, is concerned that the Society for the Study of Social Problems (SSSP) is scheduled to vote this August on a resubmitted resolution calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Along with the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and hundreds of university presidents, we believe academic boycotts do fundamental violence to academic freedom and undermine the core values that undergird the academy. We have drafted this letter to remind SSSP members of the key issues that are at stake so that they may be kept in the forefront when the resolution is debated.

In its mission statement, the SSSP endorses “strict adherence to the highest principles of academic freedom, freedom of speech, and due process” as articulated by the AAUP. When the AAUP wrote its 1915 Declaration defining the central principles of higher education, it emphasized the need for open, unfettered communication of ideas, questions, opinion, and research results among faculty members worldwide. The social purpose of the academic freedom granted to individual faculty was to protect the sort of international intellectual exchange basic to the search for the truth. When the organization adopted a formal position opposing academic boycotts in 2006, it made it clear that political litmus tests for either nation states or individual faculty members should not impede the exchange of ideas.

The same principle applies to students’ rights to participate in study abroad programs or study at foreign universities. University and faculty association votes to support a boycott of Israeli universities have already generated serious assaults on students and faculty and curtailed their personal academic freedom. The claim that only institutions are affected has been repeatedly shown to be false. Academic boycotts furthermore threaten international research collaborations, such as those established between US and Israeli universities and those between individual faculty or research groups across the world.

While many academics both here and in Israel object to their governments’ policies and actions, we do not expect academic institutions to take positions in controversial international political debates. We expect institutions to remain neutral on political issues that do not directly affect American higher education, so as not to chill the free expression of opinion by individuals and groups on campus.

Free expression clearly allows people to espouse whatever views they want about boycotting Israel. But to participate in an academic boycott of a whole people is to engage in discrimination. An association that endorses academic boycotts jeopardizes the academic freedom of its members and their students. Academic associations, moreover, do not typically articulate a foreign policy in their mission statements and mandate. They are ill served by political actions outside their academic missions.

When the SSSP debated and defeated an almost identical resolution in 2019, it did so at its face-to-face annual meeting. This year, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the SSSP meeting is virtual. Other professional organizations that have switched to virtual meetings have typically chosen not to entertain controversial political resolutions, feeling that shortened virtual meetings would not provide adequate time for full and careful debate of such resolutions. SSSP has unfortunately chosen not to follow their lead. That puts the organization at risk of adopting an ill-considered resolution that violates its own mission statement and that will seriously politicize SSSP and damage its own academic reputation.

AAF EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern