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Debating Academic Freedom re BDS

By TTN Blog

This is most of the latest installment in a virtual debate between TTN’s Prof. Steven Lubet of Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law with Prof. Dan Segal of Pitzer College, beginning with Prof. Lubet’s introduction:   

In an essay last month on Social Science Space, I pointed out the hypocrisy of activists who demand maximum academic freedom for themselves while at the same time promoting a boycott of Israeli institutions (BDS) that would limit the academic freedom of many others. The example I offered was Prof. Dan Segal of Pitzer College, who wrote a post on the AAUP’s Academe Blog bemoaning his investigation by the college for “harassment on the grounds of sex/gender [and] ancestry,” in which he was ultimately cleared. Segal persuasively argued that lengthy investigations into meritless claims can erode academic freedom by discouraging candid discussions in the classroom. My essay agreed with Segal’s view that “academic freedom protections shield all conduct and speech made in the delivery of legitimate course content” (italics Segal’s).

The hypocrisy, however, was evident in a post on Segal’s personal blog, where he objected to a course offering at Canada’s McMaster University – “The Beginning of Science: Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Conception of Space and Time” – because it was co-taught by an Israeli professor in conjunction with Tel Aviv University. “Virtual or online educational partnerships,” he said, “deserve our boycott as much as those that happen in person.”

Segal has now posted on open letter, also on Social Science Space, complaining falsely that I misrepresented his views. I have therefore copied Segal’s key paragraphs below, with my own responses in italics.

A Response to ‘When Academic Freedom Proves a One-Way Street’

Published on 11/23/2021 By Dan A. Segal

I appreciate being read, but do not appreciate being misread.

I do not hold, and actively oppose, many of the views you, Professor Lubet, have projected on to me in “When Academic Freedom Proves a One-Way Street.” The positions I articulated in the blog entry you discuss involve no objections to Pitzer or McMaster hiring Professor Eshbal Ratson for a position for which she is fully qualified and the best available candidate. Full stop. Contrary to what you have claimed about my views, I do not support barriers to hiring an individual on the basis of their “nationality” or any other factor unrelated to their being qualified for a given position.

Segal magnanimously allows that Prof. Ratson should be eligible for a faculty appointment in Canada if she is willing to quit her current position and leave her home. As long as she remains affiliated with Tel Aviv University, however, he insists that she should not be permitted to co-offer a class with a colleague at McMaster. This alone is a restraint on the academic freedom of both Prof. Ratson and Prof. Symons, the faculty member at McMaster, because it prevents them from fully cooperating – in Segal’s own words, on “the delivery of legitimate course content” – for the benefit of students at both universities.

Segal’s claim that Ratson could still figure out some way to teach at McMaster is the equivalent of the Red State legislators who defend the hours-long lines at the polls in Democratic districts. People can still vote if they try hard enough; they just have to endure onerous conditions and overcome obstacles if they hope to do it.

The Palestinian BDS campaign—which I proudly support—is clear that it embraces academic freedom and rejects boycotting individual scholars. It calls instead for opposing institutional relationships with Israeli universities (italics Segal’s).

That is indeed what the BDS movement claims. Even if true – and there are numerous cases where boycotters have gone much further, including the rejection of journal submissions by Israeli authors – it is still a restraint on academic freedom. As I clearly recognized in my essay, “Segal does not advocate totally obliterating the academic freedom of the two professors.” A significant constraint on academic freedom is still objectionable, however, even if it leaves open a hypothetical possibility that the boycotted academics can find a viable work-around. In the world of free speech scholarship, we call that a burden on the exercise of a fundamental right, and we do not like it.   

. . . .

The entire post is here at the “Social Science Space” website.  Prof. Lubet concludes:

Segal’s declared “commitment to robust dialogue and debate” is as insubstantial as his faux respect for academic freedom. In fact, Segal boasts in his bio that he is “proud to serve” in the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), an organization that specifically opposes all participation in academic activities such as “events, projects, or publications that are designed explicitly to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation.” Not much dialogue; plenty of hypocrisy.

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