American Studies Association Boycott Update:
The Condemnations Pour In

Just three days after the American Studies Association announced its boycott of Israeli academic institutions, I was able to report here that Brandeis University and Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg would cancel their institutional memberships in the ASA. I predicted that more colleges and universities would join those two after the break.

But some are not waiting. Sean Decatur, President of Kenyon College, has announced the “decision of [Kenyon’s] American Studies program to withdraw as an institutional member of the ASA.” Decatur concurred in the decision, setting his view in the context of liberal arts education, which depends on “the free and unfettered exchange of ideas.”

President Decatur understands that our colleges and universities renounce their unique role in American society when they permit themselves to become tools of one faction or another in a political struggle. Insofar as they achieve a political aim, they do so indirectly by fostering “meaningful, substantial dialogue on fundamental questions” and thereby promoting reflective citizenship. The gamble of liberal and conservative lovers of liberal education is that their side will prevail, and even learn something, through a dialogue in which their arguments are allowed a fair hearing. The ASA has shown it has no patience for dialogue and prefers compulsion.

President Michael A. McRobbie of Indiana University has announced that his university will “contact the ASA immediately to withdraw as an institutional member” and “urge the leadership of the ASA and other associations supporting the boycott to rescind this dangerous and ill-conceived action.”

As Yair Rosenberg has pointed out, between the four schools that have now renounced their institutional memberships, and the eight that, though listed by the ASA, deny having such memberships, the ASA, a little more than a week after their proud announcement, has already lost 13% of its claimed institutional membership. More losses are likely to follow when faculty members, in whose hands the decision to stay or go will be in many cases, return from break.

Meanwhile more than fifty colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania,  Cornell University, Brown University, and the University of Michigan, have declared their opposition to the boycott. Legal Insurrection, which has been all over this story, has the list. Presidents are a cautious species, so it is notable when Ron Liebowitz, President of Middlebury College calls the ASA’a move “a sad reflection of an extreme and hateful ideology of some members of the academy, or when Michael Roth of Wesleyan University declares the boycott  “politically retrograde,” “phony progressivism, and “an irresponsible attack on academic freedom.”

Some boycott proponents will call those who have withdrawn their institutional memberships hypocrites because withdrawing one’s membership is a form of boycott. That’s a false charge. None of those who have withdrawn their memberships say they will refuse to pay for their faculty members to attend ASA conferences or otherwise cut off contact with the Association. Refusing to offer one’s good name to a bad actor is not a boycott.

Other boycott proponents–and, to be fair, they are not members of the ASA–are already claiming that the universities and colleges who have criticized the boycott have been moved to do so by the Israel lobby.  Although those who make this charge are careful to avoid speaking of a “Jewish lobby,” this  nearly evidence-free appeal to an immensely powerful group, consisting mainly of Jews, to explain the apparently uncoordinated actions of college and university presidents, borders on anti-Semitism

Those who support the ASA will do their best to attribute opposition to the boycott to Zionists and conservatives. But they will find it impossible to persuade anyone not already converted that the presidents of so many colleges and universities, largely liberal and with no position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, are motivated by anything other than the desire to promote the good of their institutions, which benefit from the free exchange of ideas, and to distance themselves from a movement whose values are antithetical to theirs.

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College.

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