Pitzer College Faculty’s Assault on Academic Freedom

The Executive Committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF) condemns the vote by Pitzer College faculty and students to urge cancellation of the college’s study abroad program at Haifa University. We applaud president Marvin Oliver’s forthright decision to preserve this educational opportunity for Pitzer students.

Faculty and students at Pitzer College in California recently gained some notoriety by voting to urge the campus to close its study abroad program at Israel’s Haifa University. That action would seriously compromise student academic freedom. Their academic freedom gives them the right to apply for study anywhere they choose. That right becomes specific–significantly enhanced and structurally guaranteed –when their college or university has an established partnership offering students a clear opportunity for study abroad. Like other schools, Pitzer promotes such opportunities to prospective applicants.

Closing a study abroad program for debatable political reasons, rather than educational ones, considerably compounds the offense to academic freedom and the mission of a university in a democratic country. That becomes obvious when local stakeholders, alumni, and national groups concerned about academic freedom take issue with the politics involved. Educational opportunities should be evaluated with objective criteria, not enlisted in a controversial political agenda.

Eliminating an otherwise legitimate study abroad program for political motives constitutes an academic boycott. Hundreds of university presidents, along with the AAUP and other national higher ed organizations, have consistently opposed academic boycotts as inimical to academic freedom.

So it is not surprising that Pitzer’s president Marvin Oliver firmly rejected the idea and then announced he would not implement the demand. Faculty knew he would not do so, but that knowledge did not prevent some from disingenuously complaining that his views intimidated them and compromised their freedom of objection. If their speech was suppressed, it was incongruously noisy. At any rate, a university president is not only entitled to his own judgment in making decisions but is duty-bound to articulate them, especially when core academic principles are involved.

In truth, all in higher education rely on administrators with sufficient backbone to defend the academy’s core principles. Academic freedom is not simply one such principle among many; it is higher education’s bedrock.

Oliver was thus fulfilling one of his primary responsibilities. Nonetheless, his actions were distinctive for a different reason—his clarity and eloquence. “The recommendation puts in place a form of academic boycott of Israel,” he wrote, “and in the process, sets us on a path away from the free exchange of ideas, a direction which ultimately destroys the academy’s ability to fulfill our educational mission.”

There is an especially bitter irony in the Pitzer group’s desire to break relations with Haifa University. Haifa University is known as especially hospitable to Israeli Arabs. Arab students, some of whom identify as Palestinian, when combined with a contingent of Druze students, constitute about forty percent of Haifa’s undergraduates, whereas the national population is about 20 percent Arab. Considering the diversity of Israel’s Jewish families, who come from many different cultures in Africa, the Americas, Europe, and the Middle East, this means that study at Haifa is a uniquely multicultural experience. Interactions with different ethnic groups are inevitable. American students will commonly be invited to an Arab or Druze home or nearby village.

A manifestation of Haifa’s diversity is its approach toward Palestinian history. In an annual event run in a university auditorium, Haifa students observe Nakba (meaning catastrophe) day during which they commemorate the period after Israel’s 1948 founding when many Arab families fled or were driven out of the country amid wartime conditions. Haifa’s students also enjoy full freedom of religion. International faculty regularly spend a sabbatical there.

Yet another irony, one almost certainly lost on Pitzer’s BDS ideologues, is that Haifa is home to a number of international corporate-sponsored research projects. So the proposal would deny students opportunities for collaboration with companies, including some based in the US, that their home campus might well not offer.

As Oliver pointed out, Pitzer has study abroad programs in countries with human rights records far more troubling than Israel’s, such as China and Nepal. There is no outcry to cancel those, as intellectual or moral consistency would demand of the BDSers.

Academic freedom, moreover, is just as strong at Israeli universities as it is in the US. That sets Israel apart from many countries in the world, including some where Pitzer students study. Israeli students and faculty express their opinions freely, often disagreeing with government policy.

It is important for those inclined to disparage Haifa or other Israeli campuses to know these things. Rather than boycott Haifa, perhaps they can exercise an option with real, not just symbolic consequences. On a high ridge overlooking the Mediterranean to the west and the historic city of Haifa to the east they can meet Druze, Jewish, and Muslim students and build relationships that will enrich their lives and complicate their politics.

By the executive committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson (chair) and Kenneth Stern.

P.S.  For more on Pres. Melvin Oliver of Pitzer College, read this TTN post: “Pitzer College Pres Vetoes BDS.”