Uphill battle for academic freedom in US universities

11 January 2010

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University students demonstrate at Hampshire college. (Hampshire SJP)

In 2009, Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, became the first American higher educational institution to successfully pressure its Board of Trustees to divest from Israel-tied mutual funds. The victory came three decades after the college similarly disinvested from funds linked to apartheid South Africa. Across North America, student-led Palestine activism groups have used the methods formulated by the Palestinian-led call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) “to implement divestment initiatives against Israel, similar to those applied to South Africa in the apartheid era, until Israel meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with international law.” Hampshire College’s divestment move was a victory for the students and the administration of Hampshire College, and an inspirational model for hundreds of activism groups across North American campuses.

But despite the expanding and momentous student-led BDS movement, open dialogue around the reality of the situation in occupied Palestine continues to be an uphill battle for many professors inside the classrooms. Educators who openly align with the BDS movement, or speak out against Israeli-US policy in Palestine and the region, are being harassed, threatened, blacklisted, denied tenure and fired from their academic posts.

Denied tenure at Ithaca College

Margo Ramlal-Nankoe, former professor of Sociology at Ithaca College in New York, said that after she started addressing issues of human rights abuses in occupied Palestine — especially after the start of the second Palestinian intifada — she was warned by faculty members at the college that she was “risking” her career and “would suffer repercussions from the administration.” Ramlal-Nankoe told The Electronic Intifada (EI) that the verbal threats eventually led to alleged racist and sexist attacks, and an open death threat from a faculty member who protested Ramlal-Nankoe’s support of a department colleague whose husband was Palestinian. “He [made] a cut-throat gesture with his hand across his neck to me,” Ramlal-Nankoe said. She was later denied tenure in 2007. With the tenure review board voting unanimously against her, alleging she did not “fit in the department,” faculty colleagues had encouraged the board to “stop hiring third-world elites,” and told them that Ramlal-Nankoe’s position in the department should instead go to a “native-born American.”

“My tenure debacle started in 2005,” Ramlal-Nankoe told EI. “I received a strong majority vote in support of my tenure in 2005 from the Sociology Tenure Committee. However, the Dean committed violations in my tenure review and denied me tenure. I appealed the dean’s decision and the violations by him and a minority in the Sociology tenure committee. After I won the appeal in April 2006, the provost halted my tenure review and proposed to have a new tenure review in 2007 to correct the violations. This provost was fired soon after his decision.”

Ramlal-Nankoe attributed the core of the attacks and her denial of tenure to her support of Ithaca College’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group, her organization of a series of Palestine-Israel-themed speaking events on campus (including guests such as Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, EI’s Ali Abunimah, and former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq Denis Halliday) and her public criticism of Israel’s ongoing military occupation and violations of human rights in Palestine. The college’s Hillel organization was also aggressive in its attacks against on-campus criticism of Israeli policy.

Furthermore, Ramlal-Nankoe alleged that the college’s dean of the Humanities and Sciences Department at the time of her tenure denial, Howard Erlich, was “known” for his personal retaliation against faculty and staff who he considered to be “too sympathetic” to the Palestinian cause). She also asserted that Erlich denied funding requests for educational programs on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, classifying them as “anti-Israeli.” Ramlal-Nankoe added that at this time, Erlich had stated to her that his son was serving in the Israeli army.

Professor Ramlal-Nankoe has filed a lawsuit against Ithaca College, but it has not been resolved, she said, despite lengthy appeals and publications. Her case is now under investigation by the New York State Human Rights Commission and the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

North Carolina State University case

Film studies professor Terri Ginsberg, similarly fired in 2008 by North Carolina State University (NCSU) in what she says was a punishment for her outspoken criticism of “Zionism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and US Middle East policy,” believes that institutionalized censorship on the Palestine-Israel issue in the academic realm is eerily reminiscent of the McCarthy era of the 1950s and ’60s. “So many of the dynamics and methods of discrimination perpetrated against today’s scholarly critics of Israel and US Middle East policy derive from and continue, in updated fashion, practices initiated and implemented during that shameful period,” she says.

Ginsberg told EI that she was strongly encouraged to apply for the tenure track position at NCSU because of her strong academic service record and favorable student evaluations. But when she began publicly criticizing US-Israeli policy in the Middle East inside and outside the classroom, the administration retaliated against her and she was “punished with partial removal from — and interference in — duty, non-renewal of contract and rejection from a tenure-track position.” She remarked that since then, her entire professional academic career has been crippled. “I have been veritably blacklisted from the university classroom, ostracized by many of my colleagues, and have been forced to endure unnecessary, unwarranted economic hardship and psychological distress,” Ginsberg said.

Ginsberg also filed a legal complaint against NCSU, accusing the administration of discrimination and violation of the North Carolina Constitution, alleging freedom of speech violations and employment prejudice.

Terri Ginsberg’s legal counsel, Rima Kapitan, told EI that she expects NCSU to file a response to the lawsuit soon. Kapitan added, “The pervasiveness of restrictions on Palestine-related speech in today’s academic climate is shocking, given our Constitution’s speech protections and our society’s idealistic conception of academia as a bastion of open dialogue and debate.” Scare tactics on campuses by administrations and outside Zionist-aligned groups, Kapitan asserted, have resulted in widespread “self-censorship” by untenured or adjunct professors. Combined with a paradigm in which campus administrators and program coordinators take “neutral” stances on the so-called Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Kapitan said that “voices critical of Israel are often either banned or are not permitted unless they are heard alongside Zionist perspectives …[Academia] is a very dangerous climate for critics of Zionism.”

Hostile climate

Working alongside discriminatory academic administrations are right-wing Zionist groups, such as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and Campus Watch. Campus Watch in particular has been a strong force behind smear campaigns against university professors such as Terri Ginsberg. Campus Watch describes itself as a “project of the Middle East Forum” that “seeks to have an influence over the future course of Middle East studies” on US college campuses. However, it has been instrumental in vilifying and discrediting distinguished, well-known academic critics of Zionism and Israeli policies such as Norman Finkelstein (denied tenure in June 2007 from DePaul University), and Joel Kovel (fired from Bard College in 2008 in what Koval claimed was a thinly-veiled attempt by the college to categorize the firing as a necessary and nonpolitical budget cut). The Middle East Forum (MEF) is a right-wing think tank based in Philadelphia that “define[s] and promote[s] … US interests in the Middle East [including] fighting radical Islam; working for Palestinian acceptance of Israel; robustly asserting US interests vis-a-vis Saudi Arabia; and developing strategies to deal with Iraq and contain Iran.” Daniel Pipes, director of the MEF and a top neoconservative American academic, was quoted in 2001 by the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs as saying, “the Palestinians are a miserable people … and they deserve to be.”

Ginsberg said that because of the hostile climate within certain academic structures, combined with external pressure by these so-called watchdog groups that seek to silence criticism of Israeli policy, academic workers are made to “self-censor in order to locate and retain albeit meager employment, producing a chilling environment for permanent faculty as well … Meanwhile, non-conforming Jewish voices and perspectives continue to be held with suspicion and condemnation, not least when they articulate solidarity with the oppressed.”

She said that her academic and intellectual work was highly influenced by her Palestine activism, and “greatly enhanced” her ability to make “informed, well-rounded scholarly judgments about the conflict’s academic and cultural expression, discern true from false facts about it, and convey them to my students and in my writing — writing which would also begin to analyze the ensuing, heightened suppression of academic speech critical of Zionism and US Middle East policy.”

Slashed from the classroom but undeterred in her political activism, she continues to pursue “scholarly, activist and public intellectual work on Palestine/Israel and on Middle Eastern culture in critical light of US and European policy and attitudes toward the region.”

Fight for academic freedom

Ramlal-Nankoe’s and Ginsberg’s battles come at a time when there are both controversies and victories in the fight for academic freedom. In New York, Nadia Abou El Haj, professor of Anthropology at Barnard, became the focus of an online petition to deny her tenure, organized in part by a Barnard graduate who lives in the illegal Israeli settlement colony of Maale Addumim in the occupied West Bank. Despite external pressure, Barnard granted El Haj full tenure in 2007.

Additionally, Joseph Massad, EI contributor and professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, was finally granted tenure in 2009 after a years-long public struggle. Massad was the favored target of pro-Zionist student groups who sought to dismantle his tenure application in 2005 by discrediting him in the media in an attempt to pressure the tenure review board. After Columbia’s decision to grant Massad tenure, The New York Post and The Huffington Post, among many other media outlets, ran pieces decrying the outcome. Anna Kelner wrote in The Huffington Post: “[W]hen Columbia University granted tenure to Joseph Massad … the University jeopardized its long-standing commitment to cultivating and supporting its Jewish student population.”

EI also reported on the controversy surrounding Professor William Robinson at UC Santa Barbara, who, after emailing his students with a sharp critique of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip last winter, was accused by pro-Zionist student groups (backed by the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center) of faculty misconduct; but the case was thrown out by university officials in June of 2009.

Hindering the debate

However, Ramlal-Nankoe and Ginsberg are still worried. They believe that by attacking, censoring and firing professors because of their political activism specifically on this issue, university students are disallowed the broad-based political education necessary to understand the reality in Israel-Palestine.

“The overall situation in this respect will only deteriorate unless, in contrast to the McCarthy era, public and academic outcry, organized protest and transformative praxis are marshaled to bring about a constructive reversal in the current, nefarious trend,” Ginsberg observed. “The … Gaza Freedom March is one such protest, the BDS movement yet another. But we should not, at the same time, ignore troubles on the home-front. Persons dedicated to teaching the history and culture of Palestine justice struggles, for prime instance, must be allowed to do so unhindered by the fear and economic insecurity wrought by a higher educational system in which academic freedom has sadly devolved almost completely into academic ‘free enterprise.’”

Professor Margo Ramlal-Nankoe agrees. “The repercussions on faculty who dare to speak out against injustices [are] abysmal and contradict and defeat, in my opinion, the whole purpose of education and critical inquiry. In other words, it is anti-education.”

Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University Richard Falk, who is currently the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, said he, too, is concerned about “diverging trends in relation to academic freedom for those who express sharply critical views of Israel [and] Zionism”

“My only advice [to professors], having been attacked for several decades,” Falk added, “is to make yourself as invulnerable as possible in relation to the standard expectations that prevail in universities: publish in scholarly venues, teach reliably and with receptivity to diverse opinions, and be a useful colleague, but do not abandon your conscience or your identity as an engaged citizen with critical views.”

Falk told EI that the growing BDS movement, specifically within the academic and cultural boycott call against Israeli apartheid, is an effective course of action amongst educators and cultural workers of conscience. “There seems to be diverging trends in relation to academic freedom for those who express sharply critical views of Israel or Zionism,” Falk remarked. “On the one side there is growing sympathy for the Palestinian struggle, and this is exhibited by the spreading BDS campaign. On the other side, there are increased efforts by organized Zionist groups to exert covert and overt pressure on university administrations to punish those seen as critics of Israel. As a result, we can expect some inconsistent outcomes in this period.”

Currently, according to the US Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) campaign, more than 450 American educators and 125 writers, journalists, artists and musicians (including this writer and EI’s Ali Abunimah) have signed onto the national statement. The BDS campaign is gaining ground as academics stand up for their beliefs — and resist the aggressive political pressure — within American educational institutions.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is the co-host and Senior Producer of Flashpoints, a daily investigative newsmagazine on Pacifica Radio. She is also a correspondent for Inter Press Service. She regularly reports from Palestine, where she also runs media workshops for youth in the Dheisheh refugee camp in the occupied West Bank.