Commentary encourages students to accuse faculty who criticize Israel of “pedagogical intimidation” (UPDATED)

In an oped published Friday, Commentary magazine, the leading journal of neoconservative political analysis, offered advice to anti-Palestinian activists on “how to handle” professors who criticize Israeli policies.

The oped, penned by Matthew Ackerman, cited an episode reported on by the Jewish Chronicle, in which University of Warwick postgraduate student Smadar Bakovic contested a low mark on her dissertation on “Israeli Arab identity” by supervisor Nicola Pratt. The specifics of Pratt’s assessment of the paper have not been made public, but Bakovic told the Chronicle that Pratt said she had “taken an Israeli and Zionist perspective without investigating the issue”.

Pratt is an associate professor in “international politics of the Middle East” whose work focuses on “intersections between the politics of the Middle East and feminist international relations theory”. She was among over one hundred academics who authored a letter to the Guardian in January of 2009, denouncing Israeli’s indiscriminate attacks on civilians in Gaza.

Prior to writing her dissertation, and apparently prior to her first meeting with Pratt, Bakovic had already requested to be assigned a different supervisor. “I did some research about her on the Internet. It took me exactly 2 seconds to see exactly what she was about,” said Bakovic in a later interview. According to Bakovic, Pratt is “an anti-Semite” who “supports racism” because she has endorsed an academic boycott of Israel.

Bakovic appealed for a third review (the dissertation had also been graded by another professor whose mark was not significantly higher than Pratt’s) by claiming that Pratt had violated a university policy stipulating that “no religious, racial or political test shall be imposed upon any person in order to entitle that person… to graduate”. Bakovic has also urged supporters to sign a petition calling for Pratt’s dismissal.

As a result of Bakovic’s appeal, the paper was accepted for review by the third professor, who gave it a higher mark than Pratt. According to a university spokesman, the higher grade was awarded because the paper was “substantially different” when re-submitted.

A Tactical Lesson?

Ackerman took note of Bakovic’s approach to the appeal: “Bakovic did not make an issue out of Pratt’s anti-Israelism per se. Instead, she focused on the manner in which Pratt’s ideological commitments affected her ability to perform her task as a teacher.”

According to Ackerman, “no amount of pressure is likely to convince a university, however just the proposition, that the classroom is not a place where one can rightfully propagandize their own political views.” However, as stated by Columbia University during the unsucessful effort by anti-Palestinian activists to seek the ouster of Professor Joseph Massad, “pedagogical intimidation or the failure to create a civil learning environment” would constitute unacceptable conduct for a faculty member, could it be proved.

Students wishing to stifle criticism of Israel on the part of faculty members should “recognize the opening” demonstrated by the Bakovic case, Ackerman writes. “By focusing her efforts on the manner in which Pratt had not fulfilled her basic teaching duties and not on the degree to which she propagandized on behalf of anti-Israelism, Bakovic won a small victory that would otherwise likely not have been possible.” According to Ackerman, this approach has the potential to succeed “more than any other tactic previously employed”.

In reality, Bakovic’s appeal produced mixed results. According to the university, “a chance was given to re-work the dissertation” only because “we should have done more to allow Ms Bakovic to change supervisor at the very beginning”. However, “the complaints panel felt Prof Pratt’s supervision was exemplary”, and “the university stands by the mark given originally.”

Despite this, given the influence of Commentary, it is not unlikely that Ackerman’s oped will inspire new efforts to silence academics critical of Israel on the basis of “pedagogical intimidation” or similar pretexts.

UPDATE (30 December)

The University of Warwick has issued a statement on the Bakovic/Pratt affair which challenges many of the assertions made by Bakovic in her interviews with the Jewish Chronicle and others. The statement notes that the Chronicle failed to include the University’s position on these issues despite the University’s representatives explaining them to the reporter.

Here are the highlights:

Firstly, the assertion that this student made several representations for a change of tutor over a protracted period. This is factually incorrect. The University has on record only one email from the student expressing that concern which is dated 27 April 2011. There was no further correspondence from that student indicating such concerns until after she had received the mark for her dissertation. It should also be pointed out that the student, despite what she claims about being uncomfortable with her dissertation advisor, actively solicited on her own volition additional assistance from that supervisor several months past the normal period allotted. Her department also has on record the student’s praise for the quality of her supervision.

Secondly, the assertion that the “The dissertation was marked by another professor ….who gave me a higher mark. But….the total mark was very low.” In fact both markers individually independently gave broadly similar marks to this first piece of work, neither of which could in any way be described as “very low”. In fact both those marks equated to a very strong pass.

Thirdly, the University disputes the assertion by the student that there were only marginal differences between the original dissertation and the newly submitted work. The student’s new supervisor, who she was happy with, and who marked the significantly reworked dissertation, says that is incorrect and that there were significant changes between the two submitted pieces of work. At no time was there any ‘re-mark’ of the student’s original submission.


Abraham Greenhouse

Abraham Greenhouse's picture

Abraham Greenhouse is a longtime Palestine solidarity activist based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter as @grinhoyz.