How Fighting the Corporatization of the American University Can Get You Fired from Your Teaching Job: An Interview with Alternet

This interview was conducted by Alex Ellefson of Alternet and originally appeared there on November 24, 2014.

When Israeli bombs were falling on Gaza this summer, killing more than 2,000 Palestinians, it ignited a global controversy about whether Israel’s actions constituted war crimes. That controversy, in some ways, manifested at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The board of trustees, responding to intense pressure from donors, voted to block the appointment of Native American studies professor Steven Salaita due to his “uncivil” tweets criticizing Israel’s assault on Gaza. Salaita, who is Palestinian and the author of Israel’s Dead Soul, left his job at Virginia Tech to take a tenured position at the University of Illinois. However, only a few weeks before he was supposed to start his new position, the school’s chancellor informed him that the job offer had been rescinded.

The incident sparked a backlash from scholars, civil rights groups and activists who argued that the university had violated Salaita’s freedom of speech by firing him. More than 6,000 academics have signed on to an academic boycott against the university and 16 of the school’s departments have passed no-confidence votes against the chancellor.

Salaita’s case is not extraordinary in that he is one of many college professors who have been fired or denied tenure for expressing viewpoints critical of Israel. Last week, Salaita spoke at several campuses about his battle with the University of Illinois. One of the lectures took place at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY), which is not unfamiliar with explosive controversies related to Israel and Palestine. Almost two years ago, several New York City councilmembers threatened to pull funding from Brooklyn College if the school’s political science department did not drop its co-sponsorship of an event advocating for the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to pressure Israel to end its military occupation of Palestine.

Salaita’s appearance at Brooklyn College caused a similar uproar last week. Several New York politicians, including State Assemblyman Dov Hikind demanded that the event be canceled. It was the only stop on Salaita’s tour to elicit such a response from elected officials.

To better understand the controversy at Brooklyn College and Salaita’s case in general, I spoke to Kristofer Petersen-Overton, who in his first teaching position as an adjunct professor at Brooklyn College had an experience similar to Salaita’s. In 2011, several alumni, including Hikind, publicly objected to Petersen-Overton’s appointment to teach a graduate-level class on the Middle East. Hikind accused him of being “an overt supporter of terrorism” because of an academic paper he wrote about the concept of martyrdom in Palestinian society. Brooklyn College, which initially explained it was dismissing Petersen-Overton because he had not completed his PhD and thus was not qualified to teach the class, eventually reinstated him a week later in response to a global campaign from many of the same people protesting the decision against Salaita. Continue reading

Appearance on Democracy Now

On September 9, 2014, I appeared for a second time on Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman to discuss the firing of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

KRISTOFER PETERSENOVERTON: Yeah, well, I mean, I think there are important points of contact between my experience at Brooklyn College and Professor Salaita’s case. I mean, I was hired back in 2011 as an adjunct lecturer, so that’s a significant difference. I’m not a tenured professor. I’m a doctoral student, actually, at the CUNY Graduate Center. But many of us also teach courses in order to support our education. So I was hired to teach a one-semester course on Middle East politics. But before I was able to actually arrive in the classroom, a student complained to the department that she had googled me online and found some of my views apparently she took issue with and complained that I would be slanted and unfair towards Israel. The department asked her to hold off, and she turned around instead and went to a New York state assemblyperson, who then issued a press release calling me a, quote, “overt supporter of terrorism.” And this turned into an enormous controversy, which I didn’t expect, not knowing the political culture of Brooklyn College, not knowing the politics and background of this issue there. And unfortunately, the political science department, while supporting me, was routed by the administration, who intervened and canceled my appointment. And were it not for a large mobilization of students, faculty, activists and all sorts of independent organizations around the country and world, I wouldn’t have gotten my job back five days later.

Academic Freedom and the Boycott

* This article originally appeared in the Graduate Center Advocate in February 2014.

“We repudiate any effort to foreclose productive dialogue.” Such is the position of CUNY Interim Chancellor William Kelly, who released a short press statement in late December unilaterally reaffirming the consortium’s “long association with Israeli scholars and universities.” Kelly was responding, of course, to the controversial non-binding resolution recently passed by the American Studies Association (ASA) in favor of boycotting formal ties with Israeli universities. Similar statements have been released or signed by senior administrators at Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Amherst, Duke, Tulane, the University of Pennsylvania, and many more. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), in view of their “long-standing commitment to the free exchange of ideas,” has also reaffirmed its opposition—since at least 2005—to academic boycotts.

Politicians have also joined in on thereaction. In late January the New York State Senate quietly passed a bill that would “prohibit any college from using state aid to fund an academic entity, to provide funds for membership in an academic entity, or fund travel or lodging for any employee to attend any meeting
of such academic entity if that academic entity has undertaken an official action boycotting certain countries or their higher education institutions.” The bill, which the New York Times predicted would have “trample[d] on academic freedoms and chill[ed] free speech and dissent,” bore a disturbing resemblance to the “deeply anti-democratic” legislation passed in Israel that today subjects advocates of a boycott to criminal penalties. Fortunately, the New York version has now been scrapped; but the logic behind such moves is clear: it is necessary to boycott the boycotters in order to stop boycotts. Lost amid the clamor is the very real question of academic freedom itself, which is both poorly represented and widely mischaracterized.

Citing Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land since 1967, its relentless expansion of illegal settlements in the West Bank, the construction of a wall condemned by the International Court of Justice, the systematic discrimination against Palestinians, and the suppression of basic human rights (including the denial of academic freedom), the ASA voted on December 4, 2013 to endorse “the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The call is not compulsory and members are expressly encouraged to “act according to their conscience and convictions on these complex issues … [T]he ASA exercises no legislative authority over its members.” Put simply, scholars remain free to pursue their own work, while the ASA as a body simply chooses not to establish formal ties with Israeli institutions. Even the New York Times acknowledges that “the boycott does not apply to individual Israeli scholars engaged in ordinary exchanges,” yet most of the outrage mistakenly claims the opposite.

Such wide condemnation is mainly semantic. After all, who could possibly stomach the idea of “boycotting” the free exchange of ideas? The very suggestion smacks of McCarthyism—or worse! This peculiar interpretation (incidentally not at all what the boycott calls for) has the unfortunate effect of stirring pious indignation among many of the same individuals whose concern for academic freedom does not extend to threats on their own campuses. The potential perils faced by Israeli scholars apparently command more attention than the enormous structural threat to academic freedom posed by the exploitation of adjunct labor at home.

Yet even the contrived administrative concern for the potential threat to Israeli academic freedom is predicated on a misconception. If we agree with the AAUP’s 1940 statement of principles that academic freedom protects the “individual’s ability to conduct teaching and research without interference,” then even a cursory look at what the academic boycott proposes should dispel any suggestion that the boycott is itself a violation of academic freedom.

Each of us chooses to work or not to work with scholars for any number of reasons. is is a negative liberty we enjoy in the academy. As a negative liberty, unless restrictions are put in place that would impede such freedom, it is presumed to prevail. If academic freedom is sufficiently upheld then we cannot be compelled to work with anyone for any reason. e motives behind our decision are irrelevant. Perhaps I resent you personally; perhaps I think you produce shoddy scholarship; perhaps you hold views I find deeply offensive. Whatever my rationale, however correct or misguided, it remains my decision not to work with you. In refusing to establish formal ties with Israeli institutions, the ASA is merely expressing this liberty. Moreover, there’s something particularly obscene about the level of debate, the sheer output of concern over the ostensible threat to academic freedom faced by Israeli scholars while the conditions faced by Palestinian scholars inspires far less piety—even while Palestinian scholars are subject to the inevitable impediments and challenges that military occupation brings with it.

The following case highlights this hypocrisy. Brandeis University recently severed various cooperative ties with Al Quds University in Jerusalem to protest an Islamic Jihad rally that took place on campus, apparently featuring Nazi-style salutes, fake weapons, and photographs of suicide bombers. No one at Brandeis seemed particularly disturbed with the decision to pull out—to effectively boycott Al Quds University—though it means terminating many established academic programs. Yet the entire American Studies at Brandeis department resigned from the ASA in protest of their largely symbolic, non-binding resolution against Israeli institutions.

But let’s assume the academic boycott is, as many claim, a violation of academic freedom. If this is the case, then the logical implications of the argument take us to some fairly untenable conclusions. If it is a violation of academic freedom to refuse to work with certain institutions or to cut established ties with those institutions, then it follows that universities lacking established ties to those institutions are also in violation of academic freedom. I suppose these universities must now be compelled to immediately initiate cooperative endeavors, lest they undermine Israeli academic freedom. is becomes tiring very quickly and obliterates the negative liberty of choosing who or who not to work with, a key element of academic freedom. In a line of reasoning that may have inspired our esteemed state politicians, Indiana University has since with- drawn from the ASA in the name of academic freedom (of course). As Corey Robin writes pointedly:

Indiana University is so opposed to boycotts of academic institutions in Israel that it is going to boycott an academic institution in the United States.

The reader will have noticed that I avoided any discus- sion of the justi cations motivating the boycott. I also did not discuss the boycott’s tactical virtues. As activists and scholars, many of us might disagree with an academic boycott on tactical grounds. Perhaps one feels such a move is counterproductive or will result in negligible gains for the Palestinian struggle. Those are valid arguments and should be taken seriously. Challenging the boycott on grounds of academic freedom is not. 

On Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions

Earlier this year, a letter was read aloud to an audience at the University of Pennsylvania as they waited to hear a talk by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz. The auditorium was filled to capacity and the mood was grim. UPenn president and political theorist Amy Gutmann was unable to attend the event, so a proxy was called in to read her prepared statement welcoming professor Dershowitz and, more importantly, explaining the university’s position vis-à-vis a particular conference occurring on campus at that very moment:

It is important that you all know that we have been unambiguous in repudiating the positions that are espoused by those sponsoring that conference. They run counter to our principles, our ideals and importantly, our actions.

It was a stern reaction to a controversy that had unfolded at Penn for weeks, provoking heated debates in the pages of the university newspaper and dividing students and faculty alike into opposing camps. Not all responses were quite as diplomatic as Gutmann’s guarded statement. One professor explicitly compared the organizers to Nazis, expressing outrage that a “genocidal” group was allowed to convene at all.

What could have prompted such vitriol? What was this awful conference? Were neo-fascists visiting UPenn?  Continue reading

Academic Freedom & Palestine: A Personal Account

Good research is often controversial. In the social sciences, the exchange of new ideas, new interpretations of history, and the excavation of counter-hegemonic or what Michel Foucault would call “subjugated” knowledge unsettles and upsets received wisdom. For those of us fortunate enough to study a region as eternally fascinating and intellectually demanding as the Middle East, I think this point is especially salient. And for those of us who both research and teach these subjects in a post-9/11 United States it is more relevant still. In the decade since that terrible tragedy, we have witnessed the emergence of a resurgent anti-intellectualism both in the halls of government and on our campuses. As the Bush administration pursued policies of reckless destruction abroad, self-appointed guardians of the academy swiftly appeared on the domestic front, contributing to the jingoistic fervor of the time by encouraging students to report on the alleged anti-American and anti-Israeli biases of their professors. Couching a narrowly authoritarian vision of the University in an Orwellian discourse of “tolerance” and even “academic freedom,” outspoken ideologues like David Horowitz insist that the academy suffers from insufficient “balance.” Of course, such attacks have little to do with a genuine concern for pedagogical practice; rather, they are the culmination of the Right’s long-standing attempt at eliminating the last vestiges of progressivism and critical intellectual inquiry from the American political landscape. Continue reading

The Freedom Flotilla Can’t Lose

If you haven’t yet noticed, Israel is seriously concerned about the group of international peace activists aiming to break the military blockade of the Gaza Strip. The Israeli government has leveled a wide range of unsubstantiated charges against the activists with the second annual Freedom Flotilla, accusing them of vague ties to Hamas, latent anti-Semitism and warning that sulfuric acid was being stored for malicious use against Israeli soldiers (the latter claim has since been retracted). A Youtube video was also released late last month featuring a gay rights activist named “Marc” who’s newfound interest in pro-Palestinian politics—“I was picturing a cross between Ché Guevara and Mother Teresa with a kufiyeh”—was purportedly rebuffed by groups affiliated with the Flotilla (the video was quickly exposed as a hoax). The general thrust of these messages goes something like this: the Flotilla activists are nothing but a bunch of anti-Semitic Hamas supporters intent on provoking Israel into a violent confrontation—and they’re homophobic to boot! Not since the vilification of Judge Richard Goldstone has so much misinformation and good old-fashioned propaganda been promulgated by official Israeli channels. So why is Israel so concerned? Quite simply, the Freedom Flotilla movement is the best kind of non-violent political activism: it can’t lose. Continue reading

Mavi Marmara Memorial Exhibit

Join us in commemorating nine peace activists who were killed by Israeli soldiers when they sailed on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla on May 31, 2010. The Mavi Marmara Memorial will mark the one-year anniversary of the attack on the flotilla.

The opening will feature the exhibiting artists along with Jane Hirschmann, a member of Jews Say No! in New York City and one of the national organizers of the US Boat to Gaza. Active in anti-war efforts for the past four decades, Hirschmann is also a psychotherapist and the co-author of three books. Continue reading

Alan Levine: Jews Are Dishonored by a Blind Defense of Israel

Now that the City University of New York board of trustees has reversed course and approved an honorary degree for Tony Kushner, it is time for the Jewish establishment to reflect upon its failure to speak out. Jewish history tells us that silence is complicity. While individual Jews and progressive Jewish organizations, such as Jews Say No!, Jewish Voice for Peace, Jews Against Islamophobia, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, the Shalom Center, and J Street joined those protesting CUNY’s earlier decision to withdraw its initial offer of an honorary degree to Kushner, not one of the mainstream Jewish organizations seemed to think the trustees did anything wrong in punishing someone for his dissenting views on Israel. Neither the American Jewish Committee nor Congress, not the Anti-Defamation League, not the Jewish Community Relations Council, not Hillel. Continue reading

Letter to the CUNY Board of Trustees, Re: Tony Kushner

Dear members of the board:

I am writing to protest your vote to overturn John Jay College’s decision to grant an honorary degree to the award-winning playwright Tony Kushner. I’m sure you’ve been inundated with messages of support for Mr. Kushner, but I would like to add my drop to the flood and urge you to reconsider this ill-conceived decision.

I recently experienced the same kind of vicious, irrational attacks that have been leveled against Mr. Kushner as the target of controversy surrounding my firing and rehiring at Brooklyn College. At the time, your colleague and fellow trustee Jeffrey Wiesenfeld made disparaging comments about me and my scholarship to the press. Apparently he’s back at work enforcing ideological conformity on Israel by snubbing a world-renowned playwright. Continue reading