Academic Freedom Under Attack at Brooklyn College

Brooklyn College president stands firm, "Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast." At the same time, the New York City Council, has laid down a gauntlet: if this event goes forward, the Council will withdraw funds from CUNY and Brooklyn College. As Glenn Greenwald points out, this is about as raw an exercise of coercive political power - and simple a violation of academic freedom - as it gets.
Karen L. Gould; Corey Robin
February 4, 2013
http://www.publichistoryproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/here-lies-academic-freedom.jpg
Public History Productions
 
 
by Karen L. Gould
 
February 4, 2013
[full statement below, as reprinted in The Nation Blog]
 
Dear students, faculty, and staff,
 
During the past week, due to an upcoming event about the BDS movement, our campus has been wrestling with issues of tremendous importance to our college and our community.  There are passionate views on many sides.  While we appreciate the many voices of support for our stand on academic freedom, we cannot disregard the concerns raised by some of our students and alumni.
 
First, however, let me be clear: Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast.  Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate.   The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event.  In this case, the department's co-sponsorship of the event is an invitation to participate; it does not indicate an endorsement of the speakers' positions.  Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.  Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.
 
At the same time, it is essential that Brooklyn College remain an engaged and civil learning environment where all views may be expressed without fear of intimidation or reprisal.  As I stated last week, we encourage debate, discussion, and more debate.  Students and faculty should explore these and other issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the only basis for consideration.  Contrary to some reports, the Department of Political Science fully agrees and has reaffirmed its longstanding policy to give equal consideration to co-sponsoring speakers who represent any and all points of view.
 
Over the next two months, with the support of the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities and other campus units and community groups, we will provide multiple opportunities for discussion about the topics and related subject matter at the heart of this controversy.  In addition to Thursday evening's event, at which I encourage those with opposing views to participate in the discussion and ask tough questions, other forums will present alternative perspectives for consideration.  The college welcomes participation from any groups on our campus that may wish to help broaden the dialogue.  At each of these events, please keep in mind that students, faculty, staff, and guests are expected to treat one another with respect at all times, even when they strongly disagree.
 
Finally, to those who have voiced concern that our decision to uphold the rights of our students and faculty signals an endorsement of the speakers' views, I say again that nothing could be further from the truth.  Moreover, I assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel.  As the official host of the CUNY center for study abroad in Israel, our college has a proud history of engagement with Israel and Israeli universities. In fact, over the past two years we have renewed our efforts to reconnect with existing institutional partners and to develop new relationships as well for faculty and student exchanges with Israeli institutions.  We deeply value our Israeli partners and would not endorse any action that would imperil the State of Israel or its citizens, many of whom are family members and friends of our students, faculty, staff, alumni, and neighbors.
 
As one of the most diverse colleges in the country, it is particularly important that Brooklyn College foster an inclusive environment where all may voice their points of view across the full spectrum of social, political, and cultural issues of our time.  As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wisely stated nearly a century ago, when one finds another's speech offensive, "...the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence."  Together, we must work to ensure that on our campus more and more speech continues to occur so that our students can be broadened in their knowledge, challenged in their thinking, and encouraged to bring their own analysis and values to bear on a wide range of topics of local, national, and global interest.
 
Sincerely,
 
Karen L. Gould
President
 
 
 
by Corey Robin
 
February 4, 2013
 
This morning, Karen Gould, the president of Brooklyn College, issued an extraordinarily powerful statement in defense of academic freedom and the right of the political science department to co-sponsor the BDS event. I don't have a link yet ... but this is the critical part of her statement:
 
    First, however, let me be clear: Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast.  Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate.   The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event.  In this case, the department's co-sponsorship of the event is an invitation to participate; it does not indicate an endorsement of the speakers' positions.  Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.  Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.
 
    At the same time, it is essential that Brooklyn College remain an engaged and civil learning environment where all views may be expressed without fear of intimidation or reprisal.  As I stated last week, we encourage debate, discussion, and more debate.  Students and faculty should explore these and other issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the only basis for consideration.  Contrary to some reports, the Department of Political Science fully agrees and has reaffirmed its longstanding policy to give equal consideration to co-sponsoring speakers who represent any and all points of view.
 
In my more than twenty years as a graduate student and professor, I don't think I've ever seen a leader of an educational institution take a more principled and courageous stand than this. Under, as we know, the most extraordinary coercion and pressure.
 
So that's good. But the fight is not over.  The New York City Council, as you know, has laid down a gauntlet: if this event goes forward, with my department's co-sponsorship, the Council will withdraw funds from CUNY and Brooklyn College. As Glenn Greenwald points out this morning, this is about as raw an exercise of coercive political power  -  and simple a violation of academic freedom -  as it gets; it is almost exactly comparable to what Rudy Guiliani did when he was mayor and pulled the funding from the Brooklyn Museum merely because some people did not like what it was exhibiting.
 
So now the battle lines are clear: it's the City Council (and perhaps the State Legislature and Congress too) against academic freedom, freedom of speech, and CUNY.
 
Throughout this controversy, there has been one voice that has been conspicuously silent: Mayor Bloomberg. To everyone who is a journalist out there, I ask you to call the Mayor's office and ask the question: Will he stand with the City Council (and follow the model of his predecessor), threatening the withholding of funds merely because government officials do not like words that are being spoken at Brooklyn College? Or will he stand up to the forces of orthodoxy and insist: an educational institution, particularly one as precious to this city as CUNY, needs to remain a haven for the full exploration of views and opinions, even about -  especially about -  topics as fraught as the conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians.
 
Meanwhile, there is a petition being circulated in support of my department and academic freedom. You should sign it and share it with people. http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/support-academic-freedom-at-cuny/
 
[Corey Robin is the author of The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin and a contributing editor at Jacobin.]
 

 

February 5, 2013