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The ASA’s assault on academic freedom

The vote to boycott Israeli universities indicates little more than the Association's moral decline

I’m not surprised by the American Studies Association membership’s endorsement of the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions already passed by the ASA’s National Council, but am profoundly disappointed. Perhaps the best evidence of the impact this boycott will have on academic freedom – despite the claims of the National Council – can be seen in the decision-making process for this resolution.

Neither before, during, nor after the conference has the National Council sought seriously to engage in any type of truly open, multiple-sided discussion about the important issues at hand: How can we best preserve academic freedom for all? What is the appropriate role that the U.S. should play in the world? How can we promote peace and security for all in the Middle East? Instead, many members who did not attend a single session devoted to a potential boycott at last year’s annual conference in Puerto Rico, did not know about the resolution until it was too late to apply to participate in the conference, and thus too late for many to receive funding to attend it.

After this year’s conference, when the National Council opened the issue to a membership vote, despite explicit requests, it refused to circulate or post to its website alternative perspectives. In particular, it would not publicize several key documents urging members to reject the resolution, including an open letter to membership from the AAUP, a second letter to membership from eight former presidents, and two separate letters to the National Council signed by more than 140 ASA members and non-member Americanists opposing academic boycotts. Interestingly, many of the non-member Americanists had been members of the association in the past, but had left due to its overtly political shift in the last decade. We shall soon see how many more leave as a result of this divisive resolution.

When ASA members left the overtly pro-boycott environment of the conference – where academics lobbied in favor of the resolution throughout the weekend while distributing lollipops – those in favor of the resolution lost supporters. They wound up with approximately 820 votes in favor of the resolution, as compared to the more than 850 people they claimed signed it at the event. In contrast, without any form of institutional support, without a Caucus to promote academic freedom, without a table to distribute oppositional viewpoints at the conference, and with the National Council’s refusal to distribute or post on its website alternative perspectives, approximately 420 people either voted against the resolution or voted to abstain. This is hardly an overwhelming victory for BDS. Instead, it indicates the takeover of an established professional association by leaders committed to ideology over the type of intellectual exchange and complexity that were at the heart of the ASA’s original aims.

Because of the fluidity among humanities-based academic institutions, however, I fear that this destructive resolution sets a dangerous precedent. Instead of opening conversations and advancing peace, it stifles debate and punishes one nation’s universities and scholars and the free conduct of ASA members to interact with them. This experience (along with the passage of a similar resolution by the Asian American Studies Association) should serve as a wake-up call regarding the organization of those advocating for academic boycotts and the need of those of us who oppose such actions – on any grounds – to organize to preserve academic freedom for all.

About the Author
Sharon Ann Musher is Associate Professor of History at Stockton University, a member of the executive committee of the Alliance for Academic Freedom, and author of Democratic Art: The New Deal’s Influence on American Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2015).