[The following press release and open letter were originally published by a group of alumni of Wesleyan University.]
For Immediate Release
Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
Wesleyan University’s Alumni Protest Roth’s Statement Against the American Studies Association
As the semester at Wesleyan University begins, the Alumni of “Diversity University” are taking action in opposition to President Michael Roth, for his recent OpEd in the LA Times, which condemned the American Studies Association (ASA) resolution to support the international Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement. President Roth’s statement, misrepresents the boycott and its mission in “an ill-informed, grossly contorted polemic” according to noted scholar Robin D.G. Kelley (Wesleyan Parent ‘12).
An Open Letter to President Roth written by Wesleyan Alumni has garnered over 140 signatories from around the world, in academia and beyond, ranging in graduating years of 1989 - 2013. Wesleyan Alumnus Tavia Nyong’o ‘95, professor at New York University and an ASA member said, “I am concerned about the chilling effect on academic freedom that President Michael Roth`s denunciation of the ASA vote could have. In New York State, where I teach, the State Senate has already passed S.6438, an anti-boycott bill that clearly infringes on freedom of speech and would face constitutional challenges should it become law. Boycotts are protected speech and are part of the American political tradition, from the Montgomery bus boycott to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa."
The Open Letter points out Roth’s omissions of the academic freedoms denied by Israeli institutions, such as the routine infringements on the rights and access granted to Palestinian students, as well as the intimidation American academics face when talking about Palestine. The Open Letter also reminds Roth that although he seems to be against boycott on this particular issue, while he was a Wesleyan student in 1978 Roth occupied the then-President Cambell’s office in support of University divestment from South Africa. Lily Haskell alumnus of ’04 says, “It`s shameful that the president of an institution with a stated interest in social justice would turn his back on these values. As a signatory, I`m standing up for Palestinian human rights, including access to education - Roth does not speak for me”.
This Open Letter comes in the aftermath of the groundbreaking decision by the ASA to support the academic boycott of Israeli institutions. This act, called upon by Palestinian civil society as a form of nonviolent protest against Israeli academic institution’s support of the occupation of Palestine, is supported by many prominent American scholars.
One current Wesleyan student said, “Roth’s remarks shocked me because they seemed to come from the kind of uncritical thought that we learn to denounce at Wes. I feel like his comment would be laughed at if it was said in a classroom setting, it was so clearly inaccurate…it is like he hadn’t done the proper reading.”
Since the ASA resolution, a McCarthy-like backlash has taken place against these scholars on both the private and state level, and Wesleyan Alumni, known for their activism, want to make sure that President Roth knows that this type of misinformation is not lost on them, and they will not stand for it in their name.
January 31st, 2014
To President Michael Roth,
As proud alumnae/i of Wesleyan University, and as advocates of Wesleyan’s progressive tradition, we the undersigned declare that President Michael S. Roth’s recent op-ed in the LA Times does not speak in our names.
Writing “as president of Wesleyan, and as a historian,” Roth denounced a recent resolution in support of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions by the American Studies Association (ASA), calling it “phony progressivism” and calling on academics to reject it as an “irresponsible attack on academic freedom.” Carolyn Karcher, professor emerita of English at Temple University, published a response to Roth’s editorial.
We, the undersigned — while we hold different individual views on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (or BDS) movement — reject President Roth’s understanding of progressivism and academic freedom. Among other omissions, his editorial did not address the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students, who are routinely denied access to teaching, travel, and free speech. It also did not address the academic freedom of American scholars who work with Palestinians, or who speak and write in support of BDS, although that freedom is now under threat in New York State and beyond. We fear a chilling environment akin to McCarthyism if respectful open dialogue is not permitted on this urgent issue facing universities worldwide.
As a historian, President Roth is surely aware of the important role of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions in the progressive struggle to end the apartheid state in South Africa. Indeed, while he was himself a Wesleyan student in 1978, Roth occupied the office of then-President Campbell in support of university divestment from South Africa. Roth belongs to the tradition of international solidarity campaigns against the human rights violations of specific nations, even though he now ridicules and rejects a campaign in that tradition.
President Roth does not speak in our names when he calls on academics to reject the boycott without first informing themselves of the issues and familiarizing themselves with the intellectually rigorous and democratically accountable manner in which the ASA, together with a growing number of academic organizations, reached their decision.