Academic freedom is a cornerstone of everything our universities represent. The free exchange of ideas, even – or especially – controversial ones is essential to the academic excellence that all great universities strive to achieve.
But we have entered an upside-down world where the targeted restriction of academic freedom is used to deny the very freedom in purports to embrace.
Such is the case of Professor Bruce Duthu, who was recently appointed Dean of The Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Dartmouth College. Duthu’s pedigree as a scholar of Native American Law and policy appears to be exemplary. But in 2013 he was signatory to the Declaration of Support for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions issued by the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.
The declaration is a standard-issue boycott, which does not befit a professional scholars association. Its aim is to punish Israeli academic institutions because of their assumed support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. The document declares that the association is a “champion of intellectual and academic freedom,” but by calling for “members to boycott Israeli academic institutions because they are imbricated with the Israeli state,” it does just the opposite. Institutions of higher education and academic scholarship cannot be separated. If you sanction academic institutions, you sanction scholars. And for scholars to sanction scholars is against every principle of academic respect and freedom. By signing the document, Duthu ventured far away from scholarship and into the world of political struggle, targeting his own peers.
The problem with Duthu’s position isn’t his position on the Middle East conflict; he’s entitled to his opinions. But to wrap it in an academic veneer and to single out Israeli scholarship for punishment is fraudulent. Those who call for singling out Israel for the Divestment, Boycott and Sanction will deny they are anti-Semitic, but the result is clear: when you exclude a colleague by association to their affiliation with an Israeli institution of higher education, you are not targeting the State, you are targeting the individual. On a 2012 visit to Israel, academic deans and faculty from USC were encouraged to engage more deeply with their peers in pursuit of shared intellectual research goals. That is what a university should do; we exist to pursue academic freedom irrespective of the political environment. Engaging with Israeli institutions and scholars is just the appropriate way to treat peers and colleagues who are pursuing research that benefits us all.
But one must ask why this group is targeting Israel while ignoring situations elsewhere. Where is the movement to divest from Saudi Arabia or Iran? I do not believe it is ever the place of faculty to lead on political issues, but at the very least, applying principles equitably in your support of all those suffering would seem more humane, than singling out colleagues who are in fact the very people with the skills to help humanity globally.
I note that Dartmouth has a visitor program in mathematics that has attracted several prominent professors from Israel. If he were to hold fast to the principles outlined in the BDS document he coauthored, Duthu would terminate the relationship with these scholars – not for any lack of mathematical competence, but for the simple fact that they represent Israeli academic institutions. Will he do that? He should if he is a principled and honest man. He should not if he is Dean of Faculty of an Ivy League school. It seems he cannot have it both ways.
In 1938, a 15-year-old boy named Walter Kohn of Austria was expelled from his high school – not for his misbehavior or poor marks, but for the simple fact that he was Jewish in a Nazi world. Kohn’s life was spared by the Kindertransport, and he would go on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1998.
But imagine all the unrealized talent that has been extinguished – during the Holocaust and other humanitarian calamities – based on the senseless hatred and suspicion of entire groups.
“Science has made the world too small and too dangerous for that old-fashioned intolerance and hatred between different parts of humanity,” Kohn, who died last year, said in his testimony with USC Shoah Foundation. “We will all go down the drain together unless we learn how to deal with this problem.”
By casting suspicion on all scholars from a given country, Duthu brings us closer to the drain.
On behalf of faculty members across the globe for whom academic freedom is sacrosanct, Bruce Duthu must renounce the movement to boycott Israeli academics and stand up for academic freedom. Either that or stand down.
Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation