The Political Science Department at Brooklyn College is co-sponsoring a panel discussion about the BDS Movement against Israel, featuring Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler. The other co-sponsors—as is typical of such events—include various student groups. The Department and University as a whole have come under strong and increasingly political pressure to either cancel the event, revoke the department’s co-sponsorship, or add a speaker who is strongly against the BDS movement. I won’t rehearse the details. Glenn Greenwald has a characteristically exhaustive discussion and defense of the BC department’s academic freedom. Crooked Timberite Corey Robin is a member of that Department, but I haven’t spoken to him about this. (In fact, I’ve never spoken to him about anything. We haven’t met.) As for other CT members, as usual I am only representing myself here.
The short version is that I think the pressure the Department is coming under is undeserved, their co-sponsorship of this panel is a simple question of academic freedom, and I invite you to write a polite note to that effect to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, Provost William Tramontano and Director of Communications and PR Jeremy Thompson.
Alan “Needles” Dershowitz has led the charge against the department. He insists his “sole objection is to the official sponsorship and endorsement of BDS by an official department of a public (or for that matter private) college” because “Academic freedom does not include the power of department or faculty members to prosthelytize [sic] captive students whose grades and future depend on faculty evaluations.” I know Judith Butler’s writing gives some people a headache, but I wasn’t aware it was now standard practice to require students to attend her talks and actually hold them captive for the duration, on pain of jeopardizing their “grades and future”. Dershowitz claims that the academic freedom of these students is being violated, and asks “Does the political science department not also represent the students who major in or take courses in that subject?”
It seems to me that the answer is, quite trivially, “No”. Sponsoring a panel or speaker does not represent an endorsement of a speaker’s views, either. University departments can organize talks and roundtables, and they can invite whomever they like. It’s their call. That’s part of what academic freedom is. Grandstanding politicians should butt out. In this case, no one is being mandated to attend. The “grades and future” of BC Poli Sci majors are not under threat from anyone inside the Department. The students are not being “proselytized”. The department will not “vote to offer courses advocating BDS against Israel and grading students based on their support for the department’s position”. If any of those things were really happening, then the department would be irredeemably corrupt and “balancing” something as trivial as a roundtable would do nothing to save it. But of course none of them are. Pretending otherwise is just pure bullshit.
If I wanted to, I’d spend more time on the oddity of supposed believers in “the marketplace of ideas” (repeatedly invoked by Dershowitz) advocating for subsidies, quotas, and mandated time for competing products. Insofar as it exists, we should not expect to find this “marketplace” inside every particular talk or roundtable. Instead it should manifest itself in whether people choose to attend the university, or major in political science there, or decide to attend its events; in student assessments of the quality of courses and faculty; in how others inside the discipline regard the program and the people it trains, and so on.
Dershowitz and other critics are free to pour out their disapprobation. But the political science department is not doing anything wrong. In fact, it seems to be functioning in a quite ordinary way. As a measure of how far the bullshit meter is over in the brown here, Dershowitz lectured at CUNY in 2008, for instance, and spoke on some highly controversial topics. He did not see the need then to demand that formal opposition be provided, and neither did the University. Dershowitz was also subsequently invited by BC’s own Political Science department to give a named lecture, by himself. I sort of hope his brass neck is strong enough that he will write a piece retrospectively condemning CUNY and BC for their respective decisions to invite him under conditions that smack so strongly of proselytizing. But, honestly, I cannot believe someone needs to point out that universities—Universities!—sometimes invite controversial speakers to speak on controversial topics, let them talk for an hour or so, and have questions afterwards.
As for the actual topic of the roundtable in this case, I’m afraid I don’t much care. (Sorry, Corey.) I have no personal or professional investment in it. I don’t follow the news about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict much, if only because I was always able to get it cheaper at home anyway. But neither do I think my burning lack of interest entitles me to demand the event be cancelled, or that I should be invited on the panel to represent the null view. The Brooklyn College Poli Sci department is not doing anything unusual, let alone wrong, in co-sponsoring a roundtable of this sort. Write to President Karen Gould and say so.