Academic freedom controversy brewing at University of California

A controversy is quickening at the University of California centered around William Robinson, professor of sociology at University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), and a critic of globalization, capitalism and United States imperialism in Latin America. On 19 January, Robinson sent an e-mail message to the students in his Sociology of Globalization class containing some sharply critical commentary on Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip.

Robinson wrote that:

“Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw — a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians, subjecting them to the slow death of malnutrition, disease and despair, nearly two years before their subjection to the quick death of Israeli bombs. We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide … a process whose objective is not so much to physically eliminate each and every Palestinian than to eliminate the Palestinians as a people in any meaningful sense of the notion of people-hood.”

He added that Israel was “founded on the negation of a people,” and sent along an article by a Jewish writer savaging Israeli policies (when it was published by The Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, the editor responsible was immediately fired), as well as juxtaposed images of the Palestinian dead in Gaza and the Jewish dead from the Holocaust.

Some of his students didn’t think the e-mail acceptable, and apparently trundled off to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) of Southern California and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, querying how they should proceed. The ADL of Southern California drafted a letter to Robinson and copied UCSB senior academic bureaucrats. The letter, dated 9 February, notes that Robinson “crossed the line well beyond legitimate criticism of Israel,” adding that “we urge you to unequivocally repudiate them.”

Cynthia Silverman, the ADL’s Santa Barbara regional director, told InsideHigherEd that concerned students had contacted her after receiving the e-mail. She added that the ADL wasn’t attempting to quell criticism of Israel, but that “the question is at what point is academic freedom crossing over into the intimidation of students.” When asked if any students had complained that Robinson had taken punitive action against them for “pro-Israel” views or wouldn’t allow them free expression, she said that they hadn’t.

Silverman decided that the issue of “punitive action” was tangential to the real issue, which was Robinson’s distribution of material completely unrelated to his course, adding that the ADL does not contest “his right to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction,” but said that the critique of Israel “really had nothing to do with the course.”

In that spirit, the students dutifully drafted letters, sent them off in late February to Professor Martin Scharlemann, UCSB’s Academic Senate Charges Officer, accusing Robinson of breaking with accepted standards of faculty behavior. One student’s e-mail called this an “abuse of the educator position … To hide behind a computer and send this provocative e-mail shows poor judgment and perhaps a warped personality.”

That same student in turn segued from an attack on Robinson’s psychology to accusations of bigotry, saying that he “clearly states his anti-Semitic political views in these emails.” The other student was a tad more circumspect, writing that “The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders … indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy.”

According to UCSB professor of sociology Geoff Raymond, as the Academic Senate Charges Officer, Scharlemann should have dismissed the students’ complaints outright, or should have sought to arrive at an “informal resolution” of the matter before proceeding to formal channels, or could have worked things out with the department chair, or the dean.

Instead Scharlemann sent Robinson an e-mail explaining why the investigation was going ahead to the next stage, stating that:

“[H]ere is a summary of the allegations: You, as professor of an academic course, sent to each student enrolled in that course a highly partisan email accompanied by lurid photographs. The e-mail was unexpected and without educational context. You offered no explanation of how the material related to the content of the course. You offered no avenue to discuss, nor encouraged any response, to the opinions and photographs included in the e-mail. You directly told a student who inquired that the e-mail was not connected to the course. As a result, two enrolled students were too distraught to continue with the course. The constellation of allegations listed above, if substantially true, may violate the Faculty Code of Conduct.”

In a letter calling for Scharlemann to be replaced as Charges Officer, Raymond states that the correct procedure was not followed as outlined in the faculty code of conduct. The faculty code explicitly states that “a written response should be solicited after an ad hoc committee has been formed, and after the faculty member has been informed of the specific charges against him.” Because Scharlemann solicited “a written declaration from the faculty member before he had reached a decision to form an ad hoc committee,” Professor Robinson “could not know where he was in the process, and therefore could not adequately respond to the Charges Officer’s request.”

According to Professor of History Herbert Marcuse, the ADL’s Abraham Foxman got involved in the case after the initial exchanges between Scharlemann and Robinson regarding the students’ complaints. On 9 March, Foxman had a meeting with several deans and faculty members. Although the meeting had “no specific agenda items,” one professor explained that “Foxman was there to discuss the situation of Jewish students on campus.” During the meeting Foxman demanded that Robinson be investigated “for introducing materials critical of Israeli state policies in a course on globalization.”

Foxman has historically not been very demure when confronted with what he calls “anti-Semitism.” Marcuse explained that “when the meeting started, Foxman made clear that the only agenda point was his demand that I be investigated,” adding that such scare-mongering is standard ADL policy, but that Foxman’s intercession at UCSB is a serious scale-up of external pressure.

Marcuse adds that “When the meeting started, Foxman quickly launched into what I would call a rant about what he said was an anti-Semitic email that Professor Robinson sent to his class … Nothing else was discussed.”

Robinson denies the accusations in the strongest terms, adding that he himself is Jewish, that a class on the Sociology of Globalization by definition includes the Israel-Palestine conflict, and that sending a strongly-worded e-mail to students in no way constitutes a violation of accepted faculty comportment.

Furthermore, Robinson’s supporters argue, the definitions that the students rely upon, echoing or borrowing from the European Union and US State Department inventions, are chimeras, conflating “demonization” of the Israeli state, and “vilification” of Israeli leaders with anti-Semitism — prejudice against Jews.

UCSB’s Committee to Defend Academic Freedom notes that “We believe these allegations have been brought in order to silence any criticism of Israeli policies and practices.” The campaign to safeguard Robinson’s career has attracted the support of scores of students, activists and university professors, including Noam Chomsky, and Maurice Zeitlin of UCLA.

It has also mustered support from surprising sectors, in particular Alan Wolfe’s blog on the The New Republic website. Wolfe stated that “The idea of investigating him is appalling and the ADL should be ashamed of itself … there can be little doubt who is trying to intimidate [who] here … [the ADL] has become part and parcel of the thought police, monitoring campuses for any sign of what it considers offensive speech and putting pressure to bear on university administrators to stop it.”

Robinson has retained legal counsel. UCSB is holding an open forum on 21 May to discuss the affair, which by now has attracted significant attention. Meanwhile, the formal disciplinary process proceeds apace within the university.

“Max Ajl is a writer and activist from Brooklyn, New York. He’s written about Latin American politics and economics for the Guardian, the New Statesman, and North American Congress on Latin America, and writes about Israel-Palestine at his blog,