How Academic Freedom Can Be Used to Silence Others

When entire departments sign on to sweeping political statements, it makes it harder for students and faculty to feel disadvantaged.

Last month, in the wake of the conflict between Hamas and Israel, more than 130 women’s and gender studies programs at North American universities issued a coordinated statement expressing solidarity with the “Palestinian Feminist Collective.” The statement condemned “Israeli policies and practices,” and calling for a Palestinian “right of return.” 

 We do not subscribe to a “both sides” rhetoric that erases the military, economic, media, and global power that Israel has over Palestine. This is not a  “conflict” that is too “controversial and complex” to assess. Israel is using violent force, punitive bureaucracy, and the legal system to expel Palestinians from their rightful homes and to remove Palestinian people from their land. Israeli law systematically discriminates against Palestinian citizens of Israel. 

While such a gesture is, on one hand, a legitimate exercise of academic freedom, such political declarations by university departments can have a chilling effect on the academic freedoms of other faculty and students, effectively silencing opposing views and thus diminishing their rights.

Writing in Inside Higher Ed, Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, expressed his concern over these and similar statements about the Israel/Palestine conflict, which he called  “a new and dangerous phase in the politicization of the academy.” Nelson argued that departments are official administrative units of their universities—as opposed to professors in their personal capacities—that are “supposed to be politically neutral.”

Crucially, according to Nelson, “Once a department and its chief administrator sign on to a set of political positions, the academic freedom of those who disagree is compromised.” Dissenting students and untenured faculty members will feel intimidated and disadvantaged in matters under the control of the departments, such as grant applications, research proposals, and sabbatical requests. “It would be delusional wishful thinking,” says Nelson, “to suppose the commitment to the statement has no implications for the decisions a department or department head has to make.” He therefore called on “faculty members and senior administrators to show the courage to condemn the statement as a threat to academic freedom.” (Disclosure: Nelson is an acquaintance with whom I have occasionally exchanged draft manuscripts, though not on this subject.)

The AAUP’s John Wilson disagreed. Writing on the organization’s Academe Blog, Wilson asserted* that the 130 solidarity statements would have no chilling effect on dissenters because “absolutely nothing in the statement Nelson denounces suggests in any way that students and faculty in these departments should be banned from disagreeing with the statement. A statement is just a statement. It’s not an act of oppression.”

It is accurate to say that the Palestinian solidarity statement was carefully drafted to avoid overtly threatening retribution or other consequences for pro-Israel students or faculty. But that would ignore its sweeping language—phrased in terms of condemnation, rejection of “both sides” rhetoric, and commitment to “Palestine as a feminist issue”—as well as its lock-step proclamation by virtually every notable women studies and gender studies program in North America.

What is the purpose of issuing such a coordinated statement other than to announce an intellectual orthodoxy? What does solidarity mean, after all, other than unified determination to achieve a common goal? And what is the point of staunchly using the first-person plural to emphasize that “We unequivocally answer and amplify the call from the Palestinian Feminist Collective for ‘feminists everywhere to speak up, organize, and join the struggle for Palestinian liberation,’” and that “We join a vibrant, vast, and growing international solidarity community, composed of those raising their voices in support of Palestinian's right to freedom, return, safety, flourishing, and self-determination.”?

One may either agree or disagree with the objectives of the solidarity statement—and accept or deny an academic department’s right to make such a pronouncement—while nonetheless recognizing that it is meant to be a form of line-drawing. Its clear intention is to separate those who have joined in Palestinian solidarity from others who may believe that the conflict is “too ‘controversial and complex’ to assess,” or who reject the characterization of Israel as a “settler colonial” state. It is no surprise, therefore, that the statement was celebrated on the website of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Wilson’s insistence that “a statement is only a statement” trivializes the achievement and impact of obtaining the endorsement of 130 university departments on a single declaration of principle. Academics are notoriously individualistic, especially about language, and university departments are often slow to act. Even so, the Palestinian Feminist Collective was evidently able to prompt departmental votes and universal agreement to powerful and uncompromising wording within a matter of days. To call the product “only a statement” is a disservice to the backers of this exceptionally successful effort. It would be far more accurate to call it a challenge, or perhaps a “positioning.”

In fact, the continent-wide commitment to “center global social justice”—defined as opposing the “military, economic, media, and global power” of Israel—“in our intersectional teaching, scholarship, and organizing” leaves scant room for political disagreement within the signatory departments. (Nor should it escape notice that the so-called “media and global power” of Israel treads perilously close to a classic anti-Jewish trope.)

I agree with Wilson that university departments have the right, under the rubric of academic freedom, to issue statements on contested political issues. But that right can nonetheless be abused, and such statements can too easily become instruments of exclusion and intimidation. Such has been the case here, where the announcement of categorical solidarity has an unmistakable “with or against us” quality that will surely discourage dissident academics from pursuing careers, or taking courses, in feminist or gender studies.

Nelson is right that the anti-Israel blast from women’s and gender studies programs represents one more regrettable step in a “pattern of disciplinary politicization.” Wilson is also right that departments are entitled to take inflammatory and exclusionary public positions. Academic freedom does not guarantee wisdom, tolerance, or even decency; nor should excesses be free from criticism. And a statement, unfortunately, is not always only a statement.

Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.

Correction, June 16: This article initially described John Wilson as an editor of the Academe Blog. He is a contributor.