On May 12, 2022, the faculty of the law school at the City University of New York voted unanimously to endorse a controversial and politically charged BDS resolution passed last December by the school’s student government association. The Alliance for Academic Freedom calls on the law school faculty to repeal its endorsement, which threatens academic freedom on two levels.
In the first place, the resolution that the faculty have endorsed explicitly violates the basic tenets of academic freedom by its very content. Specifically, it calls on CUNY to end study-abroad programs and other collaborations with Israeli universities; more generally, it urges compliance with existing BDS guidelines, which bar academic and intellectual exchanges with Israel. The content of the resolution itself is therefore a call to discard the right of students and faculty to pursue their research and teaching without political restrictions.
In addition, the law school’s action violates principles of academic freedom by taking a collective stand on a contested political issue in a way that is anything but benign or anodyne. Although individual faculty members are free to take any political positions they wish, when the faculty act on behalf of an administrative unit to collectively issue a statement or endorsement, they do so on behalf of the institution—especially when they do so in the name of an entire division of the university. Moreover, a school of law like CUNY’s has greater prestige and authority than a department within a school or college and thus has more likelihood of being perceived as speaking for the overall institution.
It is particularly irresponsible for law school faculty to endorse the radical polemical claim that Israel is engaged in genocide. One would have expected law professors to apply the legal definition of genocide, rather than embrace its use as an irresponsible political accusation.
A general statement condemning, for example, racism or expressing concern about public health does not threaten anyone’s academic freedom, but a highly polemical statement such as this one does.
It thus abridges the academic freedom of everyone associated with the institution who might disagree and has a coercive effect on other members of the CUNY law community. Students, prospective students, prospective or untenured faculty, and even tenured faculty who reject the extreme position of the resolution will reasonably worry about formal or informal retribution for contradicting what the faculty has now established as its official position. All of the students and faculty of the CUNY Law School, regardless of their opinions about this resolution, will now be hurt by the backlash against it.
Finally, one event that appears to have given rise to the faculty decision was a trip taken by CUNY Chancellor Felix Matos Rodriguez and several CUNY campus presidents to Israel and the West Bank. In implicitly censuring the CUNY trip, the law school faculty have grievously misconstrued the function of such visits.
According to Chancellor Matos, his purpose was, in part, to explore “education’s role in addressing the challenges of working to find common ground in a climate of complex political and religious significance, and to gain an enriched perspective on the bridges that could be built by members of communities as diverse as ours here at CUNY.” In short, those who seek an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and a more peaceable accommodation between the peoples of the Middle East should support, not oppose, exchanges that help to overcome differences of ideology and perspective.
The Alliance for Academic Freedom comprises more than 200 liberal and progressive scholars committed to upholding academic freedom and free speech in campus debates surrounding Israel and Palestine, supportive of both peoples’ national aspirations, and opposed to Israeli occupation of the West Bank.
From the Executive Committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Stan Nadel, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern