[The following letter was issued on 16 September 2016 by California Scholars for Academic Freedom in response to the University of California Berkeley`s cancellation of a course on Palestine]
Dear Chancellor Dirks and Dean Hesse,
The California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 academics from different California institutions of higher education focused on protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression, is writing to object in the strongest possible terms to your recent suspension of the student-led DeCal course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” This unprecedented action is a breach of the accepted principles of academic freedom and a clear violation of the academic freedom of the student instructor and the instructor of record.
By overruling the vetting and approval process of the senate, it could set a very dangerous precedent for undermining what is absolutely essential for a university to have: academic freedom and faculty governance. This course was vetted through all the normal faculty procedures according to university policies. It was approved by the instructor of record, the sponsoring department, and the Committee on Courses. The administration made its decision to suspend the class without ever consulting the students enrolled in the class, the student instructor and instructor of record, the department, or the senate. Moreover, they have not communicated with any of those involved directly in the class, nor have they requested any information from them. The decision was taken with the utmost disregard of the wellbeing of the students involved.
It behooves the university administration not to cave in to outside political pressures when they try to undermine academic freedom. The suspension of the course not only violates principles of faculty governance, but also encourages and licenses the very organizations that have been harassing students and faculty whose perspectives are different from theirs and who seek to broaden the sphere of learning and critical thinking further than these groups would like.
Academic freedom means the freedom to conduct and disseminate scholarly research and the freedom to design courses and teach students in the areas of their expertise. Academic freedom means that what is acceptable or unacceptable for professors as such is determined by the faculty, not by administrators, alumni, or donors. Those who administer institutions of higher learning bear a responsibility for the protection of academic freedom. The purpose of the university is to expand students’ critical thinking, not to narrow it. Scholarly learning at its best often challenges common sense viewpoints. University education therefore may and often should make students uncomfortable.
We are concerned that the suspension of this course was a political decision in response to pressures from outside interest groups which support the perspectives of a foreign government, in this case Israel. This is the latest episode in the relentless attacks on U.S. scholars who teach on or research the topic of Palestine and Israel, orchestrated by a well-financed network of special interest groups such as the AMCHA Initiative, Stand with Us, the Canary Website, and Campus Watch (See the recent Los Angeles Times article on this network: http://www.latimes.com/local/la-me-uc-israel-palestinian-adv-snap-story.html ). On other campuses, similar attacks have led to the defamation and physical threatening of students as well as faculty, and it is clearly their intent to intimidate not only in this case, but by example. These groups have a well-organized campaign to end any critical discourse on Israel and are fundamentally anti-intellectual in their aims. Imagine, for example, if a class on the U.S. as a settler colonial state were to be suspended on grounds of anti-Americanism!
The extremist charge that the course is anti-Semitic is patently an effort to suppress open learning about the situation in Palestine/Israel, including opening space for scholarly debate. Similarly, the extremist charge that a scholarly inquiry into how to end the Israeli occupation means the destruction of the state of Israel is patently false. Two years ago, a similar case of intensive pressure took place when the AMCHA Initiative and other pressure groups tried to suspend a similar class through the R`course (much the same as DeCal), with Professor David Lloyd of UCR, one of the signatories of this letter, as the instructor of record. However, the UCR Chancellor did not succumb to the pressure and allowed the class to be offered. Some years ago at Columbia University, a similar case ensued when outsider groups tried to pressure Columbia to refuse tenure to a scholar of Israel, Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, on the grounds that she was seeking the destruction of Israel. In that case, the university did the right thing by abiding by the faculty procedures for evaluating scholarly work and awarded her tenure.
The University’s administration should provide protection to its faculty and students from such continuous harassment, preserving their academic freedom in the process. Therefore, we urge you to re-instate this course immediately and demonstrate that UC Berkeley is still committed to the principles of academic freedom, including freedom from outside political groups who wish to suppress debate on contentious issues. To do otherwise and succumb to external pressures will expose students and faculty to further harassment from external organizations.
California Scholars for Academic Freedom**
Professor, Department of Communication Studies
Interim Director, Center for Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies
California State University, San Bernardino
Professor, Department of Anthropology
Director, Center for Emerging Worlds
University of California, Santa Cruz
Distinguished Professor, Department of English
University of California, Riverside
**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.