In analyzing the backlash against the American Studies Association’s demand for a boycott against all Israeli colleges and universities, two numbers are important: 81 and 4. No fewer than eighty-one college or university presidents have personally denounced the boycott (as helpfully compiled by Avi Mayer); the number is likely higher. But only four colleges or universities have, at least publicly, responded to the boycott by terminating their institutional memberships in the ASA.
That so many presidents have criticized the ASA’s move is a welcome development: standing up for Israel in any capacity on campus entails some professional risk. (Recall the fate of Larry Summers; his denunciation of the boycott-Israel concept was one of the sins cited in the original no-confidence motion against him at Harvard.) And some of the presidential statements–Middlebury president Ron Liebowitz’s remarks particularly stand out–have been both eloquent in construction and unequivocal in message.
That said: a good portion of a president’s job comes in interacting with the public, donors, alumni, and public officials. And while hostility to Israeli security interests is rampant among the faculty of most universities, that isn’t the case among the overwhelming majority of people outside the campus walls. Given the high profile the boycott has received, and the bizarre rationalization the ASA president offered for the group’s actions (“one has to start somewhere“), it perhaps comes as little surprise that so many presidents have elected to reassure the public (and the donors on whom they rely) that they, and by implication their leadership teams, don’t share the anti-Israel extremism of the ASA.
Yet while presidents might have an institutional incentive to distance themselves from the boycott when interacting with the public, they also have an institutional incentive not to rattle the anti-Israel extremists among their faculty. (Recall, again, Summers’ fate.) And so, despite the eloquent words of so many presidents, only four schools (Brandeis, Indiana, Kenyon, and Penn St.-Harrisburg) have publicly announced that they have withdrawn their ASA memberships.
At least 23 other institutions (Boston University, CUNY Graduate Center, CUNY’s College of Staten Island, Cornell University, Dickinson College, Emory University, Fordham University, George Washington University, Harvard University, Lehigh University, Michigan State University, Middlebury College, NYU, Princeton University, Ramapo College, Rutgers University, Smith College, Stanford University, University of California, San Diego, University of Delaware, University of Minnesota, University of Texas, and Washington University, St. Louis) have seen their presidents criticize the boycott while simultaneously allowing university funds to be funneled through the ASA for institutional memberships.
Here was Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber explaining the rationale for his seemingly contradictory approach: “I do not intend to denounce the ASA, make it unwelcome on campus, or inhibit the ability of faculty members to affiliate with it. My hope is that the ASA’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 for individual faculty members to decide.” [Emphasis added.] It seems that working against a nationality-based boycott of Israel just isn’t important enough for Eisgruber to potentially confront anti-Israel extremists among Princeton’s faculty. And there’s been little indication to date that the faculty members behind the ASA and similar boycotts have changed their minds.
Unlike Princeton, dozens of ASA institutional members are public universities–meaning that taxpayer dollars are subsidizing the organization behind an anti-Israel boycott. If college presidents won’t step in to constrain the anti-Israel extremism of some of their faculty, legislators might well move. In New York, state senate president pro tempore Jeff Klein has implied a willingness to act if CUNY does not.
As thing stand now, however, we have the remarkable situation of many university leaders who have asserted that the ASA boycott is anathema to the basic principles of academic freedom and free intellectual exchange–but who do not think the boycott is bad enough to cease sending their own institution’s money to the organization responsible for the boycott. A cynical person might even think that some of the denunciations of the boycott aren’t sincere.