The president of Pitzer College in California on Tuesday reaffirmed his opposition to academic boycotts while visiting the University of Haifa — the same institution that a Pitzer governance body attempted to cut ties with some two months ago.
“Academic boycotts of any nation set us on a path of breaking the free exchange of ideas,” said President Melvin Oliver. “To boycott a country on the basis of their policies is by definition a blanket indictment of the nation itself, and by extension its citizens. This is whether we are talking about Israel and its immigration policies or the United States and its Muslim ban.”
Oliver vetoed a resolution passed in March by the Pitzer College Council — which includes faculty, students, and staff — to suspend its study abroad program at the University of Haifa, the only such program Pitzer maintains in Israel. An earlier faculty resolution endorsing the suspension was adopted in November.
In a message announcing his decision, Oliver pointed out the lack of consensus behind the politically-driven measure, the “harm” it would have on the academic freedom of individual students and “the free exchange of ideas,” and the prejudiced stance it took by singling out Israel while maintaining cooperation with universities in other nations.
The measure was introduced by Professor Daniel Segal, who has a record of supporting the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, which seeks to isolate the Jewish state academically and otherwise until it abides by Palestinian demands. It has often been condemned by university officials for attempting to limit academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas.
A Student Senate resolution calling on Oliver to resign over the controversy failed to pass in April, though a separate resolution condemning his veto passed unanimously.
“With Lara Alqasem’s arrest and detention, and Prof. Segal’s painting of the oppressive life for Palestinians of the occupied territories in Israel, the faculty were primed to vote positively and promptly,” Oliver noted.
Alqasem, an American, was temporarily barred from entering Israel to pursue studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University due to her alleged ties with groups that boycott Israel. Her petition for entry was ultimately approved by Israel’s Supreme Court.
“My opposition to the motion was couched in the defense of the educational mission of the college,” Oliver said. “As president, I discovered early on that the more I addressed the details of any BDS-inspired argument, the more I became just another political combatant in what appears to be a never-ending content of assertion and counter assertion. This is the essence of polarized thinking today.”
He expressed hope that Pitzer’s ties with the University of Haifa would continue for years to come, calling it “a model institution” with a “diverse student body.”
University of Haifa President Ron Robin thanked Oliver in turn for “his principled defiance of the BDS-motivated call to suspend study abroad ties with our institution.”
“By defending academic freedom and standing against discrimination in this manner, he not only puts his own values into action, but also strongly embodies the values of our university,” Robin added. “This is what inspired leadership looks like, in academia or in any setting.”