Saturday, February 24, 2018

ASA’s academic boycott sparks controversy at Trinity College

Nicole Sinno, ’17
News Editor

On December 4, the American Studies Association (A.S.A) voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, quickly causing striking backlash among colleges and universities all over the country. Chartered in 1951, the American Studies Association is our nation’s oldest and largest association devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history. According to the ASA, their resolution pledges to combat, “all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, discrimination,and xenophobia,” and show support for the “aggrieved peoples in the United States and the world by enlarging freedom for all, including Palestinians.” A.S.A states that the resolution is in solidarity with students deprived of their academic freedoms and published its reasons for supporting the boycott.

“The A.S.A’s endorsement of the academic boycott emerges from the context of US military and other support for Israel; Israel’s violation of international law and UN resolutions; the documented impact of the Israeli occupation on Palestinian scholars and students; the extent to which Israeli institutions of higher education are a party to state policies that violate human rights; and finally, the support of such a resolution by a majority of ASA members,” as stated in an open letter posted on the ASA website. College President Jones, among more than 80 university professors and nearly all Ivy League presidents, fiercely condemned the resolution as misguided and unprincipled. “Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars,” said Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust. Former president of Harvard University Lawrence H. Summers, called on administrators to deny Harvard faculty members the funds to attend ASA meetings.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations also sent university presidents urgent letters advising them to dissociate from the ASA. Here at Trinity, faculty members are divided over President James Jones’ decision to denounce the boycott in an open letter. More than 20 faculty members have signed a letter strongly criticizing his statement and opposition to the boycott, while more than 30 other faculty members have signed a separate letter supporting President Jones. In his letter to the president of A.S.A, Jones writes that himself and Dean of the Faculty, Thomas Mitzel, wish to go on record and publicly renounce the boycott on part of the A.S.A.

“The Dean and I oppose academic boycotts in general because they can so easily encroach upon academic freedom. In this strange case, why the ASA would propose an academic boycott of Israel and not, for example, of Syria, the Sudan, North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, or Russia escapes rational thought. Trinity has participated in the Rescue Scholar program since its inception; we have welcomed scholars from some of the most repressive countries on the planet, and it is inconceivable to us that we would ever be welcoming a Rescue Scholar fleeing Israel for political reasons. As President of the ASA, you have tarnished a once distinguished association.
-James F. Jones, Jr.”

A letter signed by more than 30 professors at Trinity college, expressed gratitude and support for President Jones and his stance on the boycott. “In taking this clear-throated position against the A.S.A’s condemnable boycott proposal, you align yourself with the broad consensus of academicians and leading institutions in American higher
education,” the letter says.

At least five institutions, including Bard College, Indiana University, and Brandeis University, have withdrawn from A.S.A membership. Prominent higher-education organizations such as the American Association of University Professors and Association of American universities denounced the boycott as well. “Such actions are misguided and greatly troubling, as they strike at the heart of academic freedom,” said the American Council on Education’s president, Molly Corbett Broad. William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton University and president emeritus of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, believed that college presidents were opposing the boycott simply because they viewed boycotts as a bad idea. “It is dangerous business, and basically unwise, for institutions to become embroiled in these kinds of debates,” Mr. Bowen said. “The consequences for institutions are just too serious.” Curtis F. Marez, president of the American Studies Association has continually stated that the boycott was aimed at Israeli institutions, not individual students, and furthermore would not threaten academic freedom.

However, at least one college president has resisted in publicly condemning the boycott. Christopher Eisgruber, president of Princeton University, has responded to inquiries regarding the boycott with a letter verbalizing how he does “not intend to denounce the A.S.A., make it unwelcome on campus or inhibit the ability of faculty members to affiliate with it.” Instead, he hopes, “A.S.A’s more thoughtful and reasonable members will eventually bring the organization to its senses-here, too, engagement may be better than a boycott. That is forindividual faculty members to decide.”

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