Defenders of the academic status quo obviously don’t care much about promoting intellectual or pedagogical diversity on campus. But they should, if only for pragmatic reasons. In an ideal world, a robust marketplace of ideas on campus could serve as a testing grounds, forcing advocates of dubious concepts to defend themselves or rethink their assumptions. Instead, of course, too many humanities and social sciences departments function as a catalyst, groupthink-style, for extremist ideas that never should have seen the light of day. The guilt-presuming Group of 88 statement in the Duke lacrosse case is a classic example of the pattern.
In our politically polarized times, these periodic public outbursts of campus extremism can trigger unfortunate political backlashes. A recent example came at the University of Kansas, where a journalism professor named David Guth issued a tasteless, mean-spirited tweet after the September Navy Yard shootings in Washington, D.C. Regents responded to politically-inspired attacks (including from key Republicans in the state legislature) and promulgated a draconian policy that essentially allows the university to terminate any professor for a tweet or public remark of which the university disapproves. (After protests from various civil liberties groups, including FIRE, the policy is now under review.)
Like the Group of 88 statement or the Guth tweet, the American Studies Association’s anti-Israel boycott is an extremist academic idea that never should have seen the light of day. And like the Guth tweet, it’s produced a political backlash, in the form of a measure introduced in the New York legislature to deny all state funding to any university that doesn’t terminate institutional funding of the ASA. This proposal too much resembles coercion, and goes too far.
The ASA has two types of memberships: professors (of the type who voted the anti-Israel boycott) pay personal dues, and universities fork over institutional memberships. Basic principles of academic freedom mean that professors must remain free to continue funding the ASA as they choose. Indeed, ASA leaders such as Claire (do it for the youngsters) Potter or Curtis “one has to start somewhere” Marez should have the absolute right to donate to as many anti-Israel organizations as they want, and not merely to the ASA. But universities sending their own money to bolster ASA’s anti-Israel coffers is another matter, even if the New York proposal goes too far. Given that, to date, only five schools have withdrawn their institutional funding of the ASA, some political action is appropriate. Otherwise, despite the impressive statements from college presidents, universities around the country will send money, in perpetuity, to an organization advocating a nationality-based boycott against Israeli universities.
The least that state legislatures can do is a sense-of-legislature resolution, making clear that neither the ASA nor the public universities in the legislature’s state that help fund the ASA speak for the state about boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. The preferable approach would be a line-item exclusion: unlike the heavy hammer of the proposed New York law, state legislatures could, and should, include an amendment to their education funding bills specifying that no taxpayer dollars should be used to fund the ASA, or any other organization that advocates a boycott of Israeli universities. If, of course, college presidents wish to raise funds from alumni, or divert tuition dollars from students, to pay the ASA, the presidents would be free to do so.
Such an approach would allow the presidents to who have denounced the boycott to back up their words with deeds.