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Academic Freedom Under Attack

Universities have historically expected the educators to know how best to foster critical thinking about issues in their classroom.

Higher education’s contribution to society rests upon the ability of educators to wrestle with challenging topics, no matter how complex or difficult to discuss. Such is the case with food safety, income inequality, institutionalized racism and a wide range of matters pertaining to public policy, just to name a few. Universities have historically expected the educators themselves to know how best to foster critical thinking about these issues in their classroom; hence we have come in the US to recognize the importance of academic freedom. Yet a benchmark study has recently shown that organizations have been aggressively attempting to extinguish any criticisms of Israel in US academic institutions. And on October 26, the Regents of the University of California will meet to discuss adopting a formal “Statement of Principles Against Intolerance” that many allege will equate any criticisms of Israel to anti-Semitism.

I consider such matters deeply personal since I have was accused of anti-Semitism and my employer, the University of California, decided to appease the accusers at the expense of academic freedom. In 2012, I taught a course on Indigenous Worldviews, an area of research in which I am well published. I used a course website (CCLE) provided to professors for course materials. That course covered indigenous uses of media around the globe to assert their claims of sovereignty. My course website contained pages of source materials and URLs for struggles on multiple continents and includes United Nations documentation (2000; 2009) on Palestinian people as “indigenous.”

That CCLE also contained a link to the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) website because students had the option of writing a final paper on how indigenous people were using media to gain political strength around the globe. I wanted the students to see the USACBI website themselves, in first-person. That seemed like appropriate teaching of relying on primary sources. I also included links for perspectives that were critical of boycott movements. The students had four themes to choose from for their final papers; thus none were required to write about Palestine or boycott, divestment and sanctions strategies. I did not lecture on any one day about Israel or Palestine. Because the course covered case studies on multiple continents, I was simply using the course content manager as a means to help them with their final paper research.

There were links, for example, about natural resource extraction in Chile, another topic I never covered in classroom lectures. Though, to be clear, I signed a petition once about that Chilean dam project, similar to how I have put my name on many petitions or statements of support regarding a variety of my political leanings: Target stores for example, Chick-fil-A and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. That college course ended in March, as did access to that site, which was only viewable to the enrolled students.

On April 4, 2012, about a month after the class ended, I was contacted by my departmental chair, Professor Angelia Leung, and was told that Andrew Leuchter, Chair of UCLA’s academic senate, was reviewing my course site for inappropriate materials pertaining to the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel since he had received a letter of complaint from a student in that class. Three years later and three formal internal investigative processes later, we now know that no letter “from a student” had been received.

We know now that a right-wing, Zionist organization, AMCHA, wrote my university’s administrators and state representatives, claiming that I was an anti-Semitic professor using state funds to indoctrinate students. According to at least one person who was questioned in the review of my case, the vice chancellor of academic affairs allegedly decided that she would collaborate with Chair of the Academic Senate Andrew Leuchter to develop a private review of my teaching and then respond to AMCHA, state representatives of California and university leaders (including the Regents) stating two things: (1) that my teaching had been formally reviewed, and that (2) I claimed to never to make such a mistake again. All of this would take place without talking with me directly, talking with any of my students, nor involving a formal review committee.

It took three years, but in the summer of 2015, my university administration clarified in signed statements that they had made a mistake. After three reviews, the Privilege and Tenure Committee on my campus eventually affirmed several core issues: First, they agreed that my rights and privileges were violated. Second, that no class member filed the original complaint. Third, that the senate chair (Leuchter) relayed erroneous information to California politicians, AMCHA and the press. As a form of mediation, this committee then worked with Andrew Leuchter to obtain a signed letter of admission and an apology. And importantly, for me at least, they obtained a signed statement from our Executive Vice Chancellor Scott Waugh heralding the importance of academic freedom at UCLA and admitting that any claims about my teaching were baseless. They have essentially provided me what I need to act legally.

My situation raises the question of how university administrators might not be making the most business wise decisions for their institutions. It makes no sense to subject faculty members, who you supposedly support professionally, to a damaged reputation and the loss of their labor. It makes no sense to then require dozens and dozens of faculty members to meet regularly for three years under the auspices of various committees to review the matter. And what about administrators’ time, and their staff time dealing with these reviews? It makes no sense to damage the university’s core mission of engaging difficult, real world issues.

By saying that we can be critical about global issues, with the exception of Israel’s apartheid policies and settler colonialisms, university administrators are signaling to both parents and students that the curriculum at the University of California can be bought by the highest bidders. This year we will not be able to teach about Israel critically; next year, will we ban critical discussions about Monsanto?

Unlike University of Illinois Urbana Champagne’s Phyllis Wise, none of UCLA’s administrators have lost their jobs. In fact, our Chancellor Gene Block just last year publicly praised our vice chancellor’s administrative leadership when she received the 2013 recognition award from UCLA Hillel. Wait: the same person who decided to respond to a Zionist organization and cause three years of grief was just given an award by our campus Hillel? At UCLA, unlike in my life or the life of Dr. Steven Salaita, it sure seems “business as usual.”

And perhaps worse, my university wants to spend even more faculty and administrative labor querying the utility of academic freedom. The Regents of the University of California and UC President Janet Napolitano are now seeking to adopt “Statements Principles Against Intolerance.” No one is surprised these days when learning that such proposals are driven by organizations that want to make criticisms of Israel synonymous with acts of anti-Semitism. To figure out this situation, Napolitano, who had little to no previous experience as a leader in higher education, will join the Regents, eight of whom are CEOs. One of those Regents, Richard Blum, already has gone on record saying that his wife, Sen. Dianne Feinstein will retaliate against the university if it does not adopt the principles.

Faculty everywhere, but particularly at the University of California, are wise to remember Coretta Scott King’s claim that “freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience.” The same is true of academic freedom. If in fact the UC Regents decide that criticisms of one government are not protected speech, then we have begun losing our rights to criticize any government, indeed to be critical of any oppression anywhere.