Decades ago, American professors largely stuck to teaching their subjects and kept their political passions separate from their academic work. Read, for example, Alan Kors’ account of a graduate school experience of his, where a decidedly leftist professor rebuked the class for just writing what they thought he wanted to hear and assigned the students to read and write cogently about Hayek’s Road to Serfdom.
Sadly, things have changed drastically and today the norm among professors, at least in many of the “soft” fields, is to strive zealously for political change. We hear about their proselytizing in the classroom day in and day out, but that has now spilled over into scholarly associations. They aren’t just for professorial exchanges any longer. They have been dragooned into the realm of political advocacy and activism.
The poster child for this ugly development is the campaign for an academic boycott of Israeli universities. Because the government of Israel pursues some policies that pro-Palestinian professors loathe, these professors demand an end to contacts with Israeli universities until the nation alters its approach to the Palestinians.
Among the academic associations where the boycott movement has had success is the American Studies Association (ASA). Back in 2013, the association’s National Council passed a resolution calling for the boycott. The ASA’s statement about the resolution declares:
“We believe that the ASA’s endorsement of a boycott is warranted given U.S. 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 the support of such a resolution by many members of the ASA.
“Our resolution understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the Association in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions, or on behalf of the Israeli government, until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.”
Then-president of the ASA, Professor Curtis Marez defended the action, stating here, “The boycott is the best way to protect and expand academic freedom and access to education.”
That stance has nothing to do with the study of American culture, but it satisfies many ASA members who are consumed with rage against Israel and cannot confine that rage to their own writing and speaking. It does not, however, satisfy some ASA members who maintain that the association has been “hijacked” by others to make it serve their political agenda.
But this involves more than just losing an argument to majority vote – about two thirds of the members voted for the boycott – because the law restricts what non-profit organizations may do. Four ASA professors have just filed suit against the association, claiming that the boycott is outside the scope of its charter and thus violates District of Columbia law.
The case, Simon Bronner et al. v. The American Studies Association has been filed in the U.S. district court for the District of Columbia. Legal support comes from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights.
Kenneth Marcus, president of the Brandeis Center says of the suit, “It’s about any association officer or director who is thinking about using their association as a tool to advance their own ideological agenda. This should send a signal that if association activists are not concerned that BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) resolutions are anti-Semitic and may be a violation of academic freedom, they should be concerned that they may violate corporations law.”
In short, this is a suit over drawing a line. Non-profit organizations such as the ASA have legal boundaries that are not supposed to be transgressed, boundaries that should keep activists from using them for their own purposes. That is the same problem we find in classrooms when professors turn them into soapboxes for their own ideological preaching, as University of Ottawa physics professor Denis Rancourt did.
Too often, college administrators turn a blind eye to these line violations. Let us hope that the judge who hears this case is made of sterner stuff.