We Defend Academic Freedom, Even for Ideological Foes


Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar last week wrote Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to request an investigation into whether University of Arizona programs comply with federal funding requirements. He expressed concern specifically about whether the campus’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) engages in anti-Semitic activities or discrimination. 

Gosar’s letter is unusual and highly troubling because he offers no evidence about CMES’s program or curriculum. His complaint is based entirely on extramural statements by two of its faculty members, one of whom, Maha Nassar, has published anti-Zionist essays in popular venues and one of whom, Linda Darling, signed a petition calling for a boycott of Israeli universities. While the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF) is opposed to all academic boycotts and has been highly critical of the BDS movement that both Nassar and Darling apparently support, we also endorse the rights of faculty, students, and staff to express their political views freely and without threat of sanction. Thus, we simultaneously support Prof. Nassar’s right to argue that “conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is a well-worn tactic of pro-Israel advocacy groups,” even as we condemn her rhetoric, which seems to ignore or deny that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism can be and often are intertwined. Her argument treads close to conspiracy theories by suggesting Israel’s supporters typically invoke anti-Semitism as a cynical “tactic” rather than as an expression of genuine fear or threat. 

We do not have enough information to determine whether the overall curriculum at Arizona lacks intellectual diversity. Yet academic freedom is threatened when the extramural opinions of faculty members instigate investigations, and, more generally, when curricular matters are decided on political rather than academic grounds. Instead, the AAF calls on the Department of Education to safeguard academic freedom and the First Amendment rights that all American citizens enjoy by denying Gosar’s request for an inquiry.

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