Academic Freedom and the Anti-Zionists

In March 2007, an academic conference entitled "Alternative Histories Within and Beyond Zionism" took place at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC), sponsored by eight university departments.  Four professors and one graduate student, none of them scholars of Israel or Zionism though all of them self-proclaimed anti-Zionists, delivered papers demonizing the Jewish state, denigrating its founding ideology and encouraging anti-Israel activism.  The five talks were replete with gross misrepresentations of the facts, selected half-truths and numerous unsubstantiated claims, including the following:

  • Zionism is racism
  • Israel is an apartheid state
  • Israel commits heinous crimes against humanity, including genocide and ethnic cleansing
  • Israel's behavior is comparable to Nazi Germany
  • Jews exaggerate the Holocaust as a tool of Zionist propaganda
  • Israel should be dismantled as a Jewish state
  • Morally responsible people should actively engage in mounting an opposition to the Jewish state, by, for instance, joining in the divestment campaign
In her opening remarks, the conference organizer, a UCSC professor of Anthropology, suggested that the event was not only protected by academic freedom but embodied the highest ideals of that freedom.  However, given the seemingly unscholarly and highly tendentious nature of the conference, it is quite reasonable to ask whether the discourse cited above constituted a legitimate expression of academic freedom or an abuse of it. 

The academic freedom rules that governed the faculty of the University of California from 1934 to 2003 conceived of competent scholarship as hostile to ideological conversion:

The function of the university is to seek and transmit knowledge and to train students in the process whereby truth is to be made known.  To convert or to make converts is alien and hostile to this dispassionate duty.  Where it becomes necessary in performing this function of a university, to consider political, social, or sectarian movements, they are dissected and examined--not taught, and the conclusion left with no tipping of the scales, to the logic of the facts.

The rules also asserted that the University "assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda."  Judged by the standards set forth in this statement of academic freedom, the conference presentations were not exercises in academic freedom but abuses of that freedom.

However in the Spring of 2003, UC President Richard Atkinson asked that the academic freedom rules be changed.  According to Atkinson himself, his desire for a revision of the rules was sparked by public outcry about the failure of both faculty and administrators to apply the then-extant academic freedom rules to a proposed UC Berkeley course in writing, entitled "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance."  In clear violation of the rules, the proposed course description indicated that the instructor would engage in passionate pro-Palestinian polemics. Instead of requiring that the course description, as well as the course itself, conform to the longstanding rules which expressly prohibited political preaching and indoctrination in the classroom, Atkinson argued that the rules themselves were "outmoded" and "not useful."  He therefore commissioned Professor Robert Post, general counsel for the AAUP and a member of the AAUP's Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure, to revise them.

In his revisions, which were overwhelmingly adopted by the UC Academic Senate in July 2003, Post duly deleted from the rules all requirements for "dispassionate" scholarship and the eschewing of ideological conversion, as well as the specific language proscribing the use of the University as "a platform for propaganda."   Thus, all language opposing political preaching and the indoctrination of students by faculty is now absent from University of California's rules of academic freedom. 

But this does not mean that political propaganda and indoctrination are now acceptable at the University of California.   Atkinson, in requesting the revision, reaffirmed that "few would disagree with...the condemnation of using the classroom to make converts to a particular political view or using the university as ‘a platform for propaganda.'"    He also specifically pointed out that the new policy "is intended to be read in conjunction with ... The Regents' 1970 Policy on Academic Freedom," which states:

            [The Regents] are responsible to see that the University remain aloof

            from politics and never function as an instrument for the advance of

            partisan interest.  Misuse of the classroom by, for example, allowing

            it to be used for political indoctrination...constitutes misuse of the

            University as an institution.

And despite extracting from the rules all language prohibiting political preaching and ideological conversion, Post, like Atkinson, was not denying that academic freedom had limits, but simply shifting to faculty and administration the responsibility for defining those limits and imposing sanctions on faculty who violate them.  This, then, raises the question: how do these two bodies, who share the responsibility for governing each University of California campus, now interpret and adjudicate the relation between political propaganda, indoctrination and academic freedom?

UC faculty, who directly control all academic matters through their representative body the Academic Senate, are responsible for guaranteeing that academic freedom is legitimately exercised and not abused by ensuring that academic programming meets scholarly standards and fulfills the educational mission of the University. What this means in terms of indoctrination is stated clearly in a recent document, "Academic Freedom: Its Privilege and Responsibility within the University of California," written and circulated by the UC-wide Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom: "Professors who...abuse their position to indoctrinate students cannot claim the protection of academic freedom." Although the progress of the document is now uncertain, its very existence indicates that those faculty most familiar with the UC academic freedom rules recognize that the rules do have limits, and believe that indoctrination is a serious violation of those limits.

While UC administrators have no authority to determine the content or assess the scholarly quality of academic programming, they do have responsibility for ensuring that all academic programming, and the behavior of the faculty who implement it, meet the standards set by state law and University policy.  Based on a statute in the California Constitution, which provides that the University of California "shall be entirely independent of all political and sectarian influence," there are several UC policies which prohibit faculty, when acting in their role as University employees, from engaging in political or partisan activity.  Of these, the most explicit articulation of University policy regarding political expression in the classroom is the previously mentioned Regent's Policy on Academic Freedom, which states that faculty who misuse the classroom for political indoctrination are misusing "the University as an institution."

So this much is clear: in theory, the University of California's two governing bodies acknowledge that academic freedom has both scholarly and regulatory limits, and that professors who engage in ideological indoctrination or political preaching have gone beyond those limits and are subject to sanction.  But is this true in practice? A small group of UCSC faculty concerned by what they believed to be growing evidence of political advocacy and indoctrination on their campus, including one of the authors, set out to answer to this question through two sets of inquiries.

In the first case, members of the group began a correspondence with the UCSC Chancellor regarding the March 2007 conference on Zionism.  They suggested to the Chancellor that the event was potentially in violation of several UC policies prohibiting faculty from using University facilities as a podium to promote a political agenda or to indoctrinate students, and they asked him to render a decision. The UCSC Counsel, responding to the group on behalf of the Chancellor, argued that the speech of all of the conference participants was protected by the rules of academic freedom, which in her opinion allowed faculty unlimited latitude in expressing their viewpoints, no matter how political.  The Counsel was not willing to consider that University policy provided well-established limits to academic freedom, nor would she concede that faculty could abuse academic freedom by promoting a political agenda or indoctrinating students.

Soon after, the group of concerned faculty directed their second inquiry to the UCSC Academic Senate.  They submitted a report to the Senate Executive Committee, which included documentation of what they believed to be examples of political preaching and advocacy in classrooms and at departmentally-sponsored events on campus.  They argued that these were antithetical to the academic mission of the university and urged the Academic Senate to investigate the matter.   The Senate Executive Committee agreed to look into the group's concerns and sent the inquiry to the UCSC Committee on Academic Freedom for further investigation.  However, instead of heeding the charge of the Senate Executive Committee to investigate the possibility of academic freedom abuse, the Committee on Academic Freedom initiated an investigation of the faculty who had submitted the inquiry, in order to determine if their behavior constituted a threat to academic freedom.

Thus, while the two governing bodies on at least one UC campus have shown themselves to be unequivocally committed to protecting the privilege of academic freedom, neither body is willing to acknowledge academic freedom's concomitant responsibilities, or the role of its members in protecting that freedom from abuse. The academic senate has failed to exercise its due diligence in defining and applying standards of scholarship, which would ensure that professors educate rather than politically indoctrinate their students.  Similarly, the administration has failed to exercise its due diligence in enforcing the University's own rules, which prohibit the use of the University for political advocacy and indoctrination.

What are the consequences of this failure of shared governance? First and foremost, it leads to a corruption of the University's fundamental mission, which, as clearly stated in the current UC academic freedom rules, is  "to discover knowledge and to disseminate it to its students and to society at large."  This statement highlights the true casualties of the abuse of academic freedom. The first is knowledge itself. As the March 2007 conference demonstrates, when political preaching and indoctrination are allowed free reign, the standards of academic integrity are forsaken, and falsehoods, distortions and multiple unsubstantiated claims in support of a political agenda masquerade as legitimate scholarship.

Students, too, are casualties of this kind of discourse.  Its one-sided, tendentious nature limits their access to vital information about complex topics of global importance, deprives them of the means to critically evaluate their professors' views by contrasting them with other legitimate scholarly opinions, and violates their fundamental right to be educated and not indoctrinated.

The final casualty of political preaching and indoctrination is society.  For when the University fails to live up to its mission -- when its faculty does not adhere to standards of academic integrity, when professors knowingly limit the flow of knowledge because of their own ideological biases, or when education becomes political indoctrination -- there is an egregious violation of the public trust, which damages the social contract so crucial to the university's existence.

It is clear that the abuse of academic freedom to promote political and partisan agendas has the potential to do enormous harm to the University and the public it serves.  Ultimately, given the governance structure of the University, the problem can only be solved by faculty and administration, though it requires a willingness on the part of both of these governing bodies to grapple with fundamental questions about the limits of academic freedom. However, when they prove unwilling, it is incumbent upon all who care about the future of higher education to make their voices heard.

Leila Beckwith is professor emeritus in the  UCLA Pediatrics Department . Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is a lecturer in Hebrew at UC Santa Cruz.