The Fight for Academic Freedom at CUNY

It’s been a busy couple of months at CUNY since the Advocate last went to press. As you’ll see in this issue, there’s been no shortage of controversy across the constellation of CUNY campuses.  At Hunter College, a major victory for adjunct and human rights was won in December when a court ruled in favor of a veteran adjunct who sued the school for wrongful termination and discrimination. At Queensborough Community College, a flashpoint in the fight against Pathways, the administration’s push to implement the policies of austerity continues to meet with militant resistance. And here at the Graduate Center, President Bill Kelly and Provost Chase Robinson managed to make a dog’s breakfast of their new fast-track-to-graduation initiative with some startlingly bad word choices in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

But the development that received the most attention was the fight at Brooklyn College over the political science department’s decision there to co-sponsor a discussion on the Israel Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement—the most recent skirmish in what’s proving to be a protracted battle over academic freedom at CUNY. The event received national attention, not least because Alan Dershowitz saw fit to attack the school and its administration for respecting free speech on campus. City Council members and other local officials quickly piled on, demanding that College President Karen Gould call for the event’s cancellation, or at the very least for the withdrawal of the political science department’s sponsorship of the event. Otherwise, some of them threatened, future funding for the school from the council would be in grave doubt.

Gould stood her ground, as did a very determined political science department led by its chair, Paisley Currah.  They were helped by a New York Daily News editorial—which slapped the City Council’s wrists for threatening Brooklyn College with the public purse—a letter writing campaign demanding that the councilmembers reconsider their position, and finally the unambiguous disgust of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who didn’t mince words. “If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kinds of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea. The last thing we need is for members of our City Council of State Legislature micromanaging the kind of programs that our public universities run and base funding decisions on the political views of our professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.” Bloomberg’s remarks effectively ended the efforts of those seeking to block the event, and in fact it moved forward as planned without further incident.

In the wake of school’s victory—which was really a win for the entire CUNY system—Brooklyn College’s Samir Chopra, a professor of philosophy, offered some sobering reflections on what it all might mean for the future of free speech in the City University system. Samir warns that “what this entire business portends for the future of academic freedom on the American campus is, I think, a little more grim…The pressure brought to bear on Brooklyn College from the outside was an attempt to regulate discourse on campus. And in that, I fear it has succeeded in many ways.”

How so?  “For one, this event does not make the controversial panel discussion on campus more likely. It makes it more unlikely. Which department or university administration wants to go through this fiasco again…at Brooklyn College, no other department dared co-sponsor the event in solidarity with the political science department; will any of them try to sponsor anything similar down the line?”

Samir concludes by pointing out that “I do not know if the coalition acting against Brooklyn College seriously thought they could shut the BDS panel down; what they might have done is merely played the long game, knowing that even if this panel goes forward, there is little chance anything like it will happen [again] for a long time at Brooklyn College, or anywhere else, for that matter.” Fair points, all.

I’d like to offer some further thoughts for consideration, however. Apart from the victory at Brooklyn College itself—which alone is hugely significant—it seems to me that there are some other takeaways from this episode that might temper worries about the future, and offer something to remember during the next round of battle (because there will be a next round) on whichever CUNY campus the fight is joined.

To my mind, the most important lesson of the BDS affair at Brooklyn College is that the series of academic freedom fights at CUNY over the past couple of years is beginning to pay dividends for defenders of free speech. Successive rounds of grappling with these threats to the university have allowed faculty and student activists at CUNY to accumulate a storehouse of best practices, develop solidarity action networks across the system, and identify and capitalize on a clear comparative advantage in social media mobilization—tools which have proven indispensable to beating back coercive attacks on the university from outside and in. None of this should be underestimated, nor should the momentum that continues to build in our favor.

It’s not just the defenders of academic freedom at CUNY who have learned from these experiences.  CUNY administrators have also been affected by previous bruisings in the public square. Consider this: Brooklyn College President Gould—who honorably stood her ground with faculty and students this time around—was a principal antagonist of these same faculty and students in the last struggle at Brooklyn College to roll back the firing of Kristofer Petersen-Overton for his views on Israel. The stakes then were no different, and indeed the arguments mobilized by each side were almost identically the same. So, what changed? I’d venture that President Gould learned last time around that the price of fighting, and losing, these battles is simply too high. Better to stick on the side that demonstrates better arguments and an unwillingness to be bullied, and let others take a public pounding if the issue is really important to them.

Gould wasn’t the only former adversary who became an ally in repelling outside attacks on Brooklyn College’s political science department.  The speed with which CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein jumped out in front of this mess by endorsing the school, its president and faculty, and the principle of academic freedom, was surprising to say the least. Goldtein engaged in rhetorical acrobatics to assure supporters of his disgust with BDS and his unwavering defense of Israel. But in the end his message was just as clear—free speech at CUNY is sacrosanct and inviolable and that the health of the university was only as strong as the protections it guarantees its students and faculty.

It should be noted that Jeffrey Weisenfeld, the CUNY Trustee who has been at the heart of each of the previous controversies in the university over issues of academic freedom, was his usual, unhinged self.  Referring to the event as a “Nuremberg-like conference,” Weisenfeld argued that “taxpayer dollars should not fund illegitimate, racist and anti-Semitic activities” such as the discussion with Butler and Barghouti. Then, in a protest letter to President Gould, Weisenfeld really got going. “Did you see the book of Mormon? Hysterical (but not for Mormons). There are plenty of shows which parody Jews and their neuroses as well. There’s a whole industry for that—Jews invented comedy. Funny. There are many forms of entertainment poking fun at Catholics (Bill Donohue is not always happy, but they largely tolerate it). Ever wonder why there’s no ‘Book of Muhammad?’ It’s because the theatre would be burned down.” Thankfully, few rewarded his antics by paying any attention.

But Weisenfeld and his allies’ dogged rejection of free speech if it fails to complement their own politics cannot be ignored. Samir worries with good reason that the presence of powerful outside interests casts a shadow over departments that were unwilling to lend their sponsorship to the event, let alone their support to the political science faculty when the fight was underway. However true this may be, it’s worth reminding ourselves that these departments can’t be counted on any less in the future. If anything, witnessing a department not only holding its ground but pummeling a group of reactionaries into humiliating retreat would inspire, not cow, sympathetic faculty in future situations.

In future fights, the hard work of coaxing timid faculty members into removing their heads from the sand and forcing others to choose between privileging their foreign policy preferences and their defense of constitutional rights may be made easier by dint of precedent. After all, we now have an official policy from the university to point to and rely upon. Rarely, to my knowledge, has a university’s stance on academic freedom been made as clearly or publicly as in President Gould’s official statement on the matter which Chancellor Goldstein endorsed, then cut-and-pasted into the body of his own official position.  Her words are worth quoting at length.

“Let me be clear: Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast. Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further education discussion and debate.  The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event…Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country. Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.”

Let’s all remember that and make sure to remind others who have forgotten the next time vested interests look to bully CUNY into quiescence on an issue of their choosing. As a community, we are better, and more importantly, stronger than that. One doesn’t always find the sort of solidarity across the ranks at CUNY that one may want, but it’s growing. And where it does exist it’s pretty remarkable, and kind of unstoppable.

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