Paper missiles

Academic boycotts, while nearly always wrongheaded, are particularly risky for public universities

On Jan. 2 Teresa Sullivan joined the ranks of more than 100 university presidents who have come out against the American Studies Association’s mid-December vote to boycott Israeli colleges and universities. The association, a group of more than 4,000 academics devoted to the study of American culture and history, endorsed the boycott to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

The ASA’s self-righteous move elicited, in turn, self-righteous anger. Whereas the ASA resolution condemned Israeli institutions for being “party to Israeli state policies that violate human rights,” many scholarly organizations—including the American Association of University Professors, the American Council of Education and the Association of American Universities—have jumped to chide the ASA for what they view as an assault on academic freedom. Eight former ASA presidents also signed a letter condemning the boycott.

The flurry of white paper—a frenzy of resolutions and statements and letters volleyed between various academic groups—was as blinding and as icy (in tone, at least) as the polar vortex-induced snowfalls that bombarded the Midwest last week. To her credit, the statement Sullivan signed, a letter issued by the executive committee and president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, was civil and brief.

This scholarly kerfuffle has been drawing headlines in The New York Times and the Washington Post in part because the ASA boycott is an extension of a global campaign called the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement, which calls for various forms of boycott against Israel. So far, the BDS campaign has enjoyed little success in the United States.

We argue that academic boycotts are a wrongheaded tactic; that even if academic boycotts were a good idea, the ASA should apply them consistently; and, importantly for the University of Virginia, that academic boycotts are particularly dangerous for public institutions.

An academic boycott is the scholarly version of “you can’t play with us”—a sentiment no more mature in the mouths of professors than in the mouths of third-graders. Boycotting academic institutions entails cutting off collaboration with the colleges and universities the boycott targets. Some practical consequences would include: Israeli citizens would not be able to use funds from their home institutions to travel to conferences; American scholars invited to speak at Israeli universities would decline.

The ASA has pointed out that its boycott targets Israeli institutions, not individual scholars. It doesn’t take a philosopher (Israeli or not) to point out that this distinction is tenuous. It’s impossible to punish institutions without hurting the scholars housed in them.

Academic embargos levied against other countries hurt scholars who may or may not agree with their government’s policies. They cut off these teachers and researchers from outside conversation. They impede free inquiry and exchange of ideas by putting up barriers between universities that match the barriers between nations. An academic boycott is by definition a blow against academic freedom.

Academic boycotts go against principles of scholarship: but do they make for an effective political tactic? Not really. Academic boycotts directed against countries could, we suppose, score political gains: if a country feels as if it is damaged by the isolation of its scholars, it might offer concessions. But if you want a change in Israeli policy—or the policies of any state, for that matter—an academic boycott is not the way to do it. A country’s universities would have to languish for a while before most governments would step in to end an academic boycott. If you must boycott, economic boycotts are faster. Whereas economic boycotts can exert pressure on state leaders by damaging a nation’s economy, academic embargos are a form of symbolic protest that does little to change policy.

Even if academic boycotts were a good idea, the ASA would still have some questions to answer. Israel is the first (and so far the only) country the ASA has called to boycott. Countries known for worse human-rights records, such as Syria, Russia and Iran, have not been boycotted. If the ASA wishes to issue boycotts, it should devise a set of criteria describing conditions that merit a boycott. It should then apply boycotts consistently to countries or institutions that violate these terms. Singling out Israel risks enacting the misdeed the ASA accuses Israeli institutions of committing: mistreating scores of people on the basis of nationality.

Public schools in particular should steer clear of academic boycotts. The ASA’s effort gives ammunition to lawmakers and public figures who believe that higher education is no more than a hothouse of liberals with cushy jobs who try to brainwash their kids. Endorsing academic boycotts is a good way to invite retaliation from otherwise-minded state legislators later on.

Academic boycotts not only express political positions; they are also a form of political action. By pressuring a government via its country’s universities, an academic boycott wages a cold war. Public universities, or associations of public universities such as the one Sullivan belongs to, should not perform political actions unrelated to higher education (taking a stance on, say, government cuts to higher education is another matter). Individual scholars, on the other hand, may, and sometimes should, be politically active.

Sullivan’s unequivocal and public opposition to the ASA’s boycott supports academic freedom and helps preserve a line—crucial especially for public institutions—between the scholarly and the political.


Published January 13, 2014 in Opinion







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