Everyone Lost at Dartmouth
A scholar’s decision to decline an appointment as dean of the faculty after controversy over his support of a statement calling for an Israel boycott is a defeat for all sides, argue Cary Nelson and other members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom.
In May 2017, N. Bruce Duthu, an associate dean and faculty member in Native American studies at Dartmouth College, announced that he would not be accepting the appointment he had been offered to become dean of the faculty. An enrolled member of the United Houma Nation and an authority on Native American law and public policy, Duthu had been serving as associate dean of the faculty for international studies and interdisciplinary programs; he thus had a track record as an administrator responsible for a range of faculty interests and curricular programs crossing disciplinary boundaries. Faculty members from a number of programs had direct experience working with him and had developed considerable confidence in his judgment and abilities. It was a widely popular appointment.
One issue, however, became a subject of both local and national debate: in 2013, as treasurer and a member of the executive committee of the national Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, Duthu had helped draft and thus co-author the organization’s statement calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, as part of what is referred to as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Alan Gustman, an economics professor at Dartmouth, this year circulated a letter arguing that those actions made Duthu unsuitable to be dean of the faculty: “In view of Dartmouth’s anti-Semitic history and Professor Duthu’s endorsement of the anti-Semitic BDS document, Dartmouth must not simply appoint Duthu to the position of dean of the faculty and ignore the implications of that appointment.”
He did not claim that Duthu was anti-Semitic himself, but he did insist that unless Duthu proceeded to “publicly disavow the full ramifications of the BDS positions he has publicly endorsed,” Dartmouth would remain entangled with its earlier anti-Semitic history. The message seemingly implied that Dartmouth was perfectly comfortable appointing a dean who was in favor of the anti-Semitic BDS movement and was unaware of or unconcerned with the contradictory public positions he had taken with regard to his obligations as dean of the faculty. In effect, Gustman was saying he had hoped that the specter of past anti-Semitism had left Dartmouth, but now he was no longer so sure.
The statement went viral, and individuals and groups joined the debate, both defending and attacking Duthu. In the end, Duthu decided the controversy had gotten in the way of his doing the job and withdrew, simultaneously resigning as associate dean.
Although intense hostility to Israel in Native American studies is not uncommon, and in some cases it has resembled anti-Semitism, Duthu himself, his colleagues testify, has never spoken in any such way. As Dartmouth faculty member and Jewish studies head Susannah Heschel wrote to the Alliance for Academic Freedom, here quoted with permission, “I have never heard anything from him that I would consider even remotely problematic about Israel, and I believe several of my Jewish colleagues who are far more right-wing than I feel the same way. We were united in our enthusiasm for him.” She added, “Why did we support him? Bruce helped me, as chair of JWST, with our student exchange program with Israeli universities, set up two courses per year on Israel [and] bring visiting faculty to teach at Dartmouth — including Hillel Cohen, director of the center for the study of Zionism at Hebrew University; Israel Yuval, a professor of medieval Jewish history at Hebrew University and director of Scholion and of the Hebrew U’s humanities center; and Jeremy Cohen, a professor of medieval Jewish history at Tel Aviv University — all teaching at Dartmouth within the space of two years. In each case, Bruce arranged everything quickly and enthusiastically — and believe me, no dean has ever been as efficient and supportive. Plus, Bruce has been invited to lecture at Hebrew University and accepted with enthusiasm. Truth: he is no boycotter.”
Part of what is important about these comments is that they testify to Duthu’s past practices. Such evidence can be a better guide to future actions than declarations and promises. That is perhaps not less true for faculty members than it is for politicians.
Moreover, before his withdrawal, Duthu rejected academic boycotts, thus rejecting the official NAISA position. He wrote, “I continue to believe in the right of private citizens to express criticism of any country’s government policies. At the same time, I do not believe that a boycott of academic institutions is the appropriate response.” He added that he had embraced Dartmouth’s institutional opposition to academic boycotts and would continue to do so as dean of the faculty.
The problem begins with how we understand what occurred in 2013, which requires some historical context. Based on the historical experience of European colonization throughout the Americas, Native American studies faculty tend to accept the related ill-informed claims that Palestinians are the only authentic indigenous people of Palestine and that the state of Israel was founded as a European settler-colonialist enterprise. BDS has been promoting these arguments for years, ignoring or disparaging the important historical and genetic evidence to the contrary. The BDS arguments are by no means universally accepted in nonacademic Native American communities, but they represent the perspective of many, if not most, outspoken and organized Native American faculty.
We may never know whether NAISA understood that there has always been an indigenous Jewish population in Palestine. Some Native Americans recognize a fraternal relation with Israelis: Jews in Israel, like American Indians in the United States, are trying to reclaim their sovereignty on a small part of their former land. But that view does not hold sway in some academic disciplines.
Native American faculty members who lecture or perform in Israel can be subjected to fierce critique and both local and national shunning. So it was to be expected that the NAISA executive committee would vote as it did. The statement they endorsed was reportedly a more moderate one than that they had been considering, and that may have encouraged Duthu to support it. Many progressive faculty members were frustrated with the failure of peace negotiations to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and some accepted the need to criticize and isolate the more powerful of the two parties involved. In any case, we are never likely to learn details about the confidential discussions about the resolution on the NAISA executive committee. But Duthu has made clear he no longer shares the position adopted in the NAISA statement.
Was it necessary or appropriate for Duthu to speak to the issue of academic boycotts? Is the very specific testimony about his prior practices at Dartmouth relevant? The American Association of University Professors in 2005 made it clear that academic boycotts are an assault against the principle of academic freedom that is the bedrock of higher education. While an individual faculty member can reject that argument, an administrator with the responsibility to evaluate or oversee joint programs with Israeli universities cannot. Administrators are at-will employees; they can be relieved of their administrative responsibilities for any reason. They can debate policies under consideration, but they are expected to help implement them once they are adopted. Administrators do not have the same level of academic freedom as faculty members.
Some faculty members can maintain a clear separation between their political opinions and their campus academic decisions and practices; some cannot. A number of prominent supporters of academic boycotts of Israel teach classes that excoriate Israel and write books and essays that do the same. Some quietly make hiring and promotion decisions on that basis as well. Academic freedom gives faculty wide latitude in these areas, but administrators do not have the same latitude. They are bound by the general principles the campus has adopted and must not make decisions based on their personal political biases.
It was perfectly reasonable, therefore, for Dartmouth faculty to want to believe that Duthu could be counted on both to support Jewish studies and to give a fair and sympathetic hearing to well-argued proposals for faculty travel to Israel or research and pedagogical collaborations with Israeli universities. Given Duthu’s role in organizing and signing an academic boycott resolution, the concern was warranted. But Duthu’s own statements and the personal history Heschel recounts provide those assurances. Once we know he now rejects academic boycotts and know as well what kind of dean he would have made, we really do not need an account of the personal processes he went through in 2013 and since.
One might have welcomed a more full-throated denunciation of academic boycotts, given that the principles involved are so fundamental, but such a demand crosses the line into a political litmus test. It is not as if really good administrators grow on trees or lie scattered among the grasses on the quad. No one benefits from discarding one.
Those members of the Jewish community, among them Dartmouth’s persistent economics professor, who intervened to excoriate Duthu, did not help their cause, either. Many outside Jewish groups chose to remain silent while the debate was ongoing, believing that most academic decisions should proceed without outside interference. There are occasions when a public outcry is appropriate, but cautious consideration and reticence are essential components of any outside political intervention in academic matters.
Moreover, given that Duthu had the courage to distance himself publicly from the small and relatively close-knit NAISA community by rejecting academic boycotts, his deanship offer gave the Jewish community an opportunity for outreach and solidarity. That is a far better strategy than holding someone eternally responsible for boycott advocacy they later withdraw. It is a better model for how to educate the many weak BDS advocates.
While those leaders of the BDS movement who urge the dissolution of the Jewish state have embraced an anti-Semitic project, it is not uncommon to find students and faculty members who have signed BDS petitions while privately admitting they don’t actually know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They have responded to social and political peer group pressure and done what they believe is surely the politically correct thing to do. An endorsement of a BDS resolution does not justify claiming a person has knowingly made an anti-Semitic alliance. It does justify an effort to educate someone about why an effort to deny six million Israeli Jews any right to political self-determination is anti-Semitic in effect, however confused its intent may be.
The bottom line is that applying any such considerations to an administrative appointment has to apply principle on a case-by-case basis that gives great weight to past practice. Who a candidate is as a person cannot be ruled irrelevant, although both supporters and detractors of Duthu chose to do so. Of course making careful personnel decisions is messy and inconvenient and makes grandstanding undesirable, which ruled out a good deal of the debate in this case.
The impression that some Jewish constituencies on and off campus treated a person unfairly, finally, does not do service to the cause of Jewish studies or Israel studies. Nor does it help discredit the worst impulses of the BDS movement, impulses dear to the hearts of BDS leaders here and abroad. Uncompromising political partisanship on either side of the debate damages the potential for campus discussion here and political negotiation in Palestine. Properly honored, academic freedom can help reverse both trends. Our strong impression is that Bruce Duthu has had a long-standing commitment to the sort of civility that fosters academic freedom.
We consequently view Duthu’s withdrawal and resignation as a defeat for all sides: for those seeking clarity about the status of academic freedom for administrators; for those who believe that strong majority facultywide sentiment should be honored in approving administrative appointments; for those who believe university appointments should not be influenced by outside pressure; for those seeking to strengthen both Jewish studies programs and cooperative engagement with Israeli universities; for those welcoming the advancement and influence of Native American faculty; for those concerned about the number of recent anti-Semitic incidents on campus. If any of these constituencies are celebrating those events as a victory, we believe they have misjudged the long-term consequences.