Bravo to the University of Michigan for disinviting Alice Walker – and shame on Walker for reportedly spreading false rumors about Michigan’s reasons for doing so. The University of Michigan recently withdrew a speaking invitation to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Color Purple, who is now known not only for her literary work but also for her virulent anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism. Walker says that the university was pressured to do so, but the university denies it.
Walker and her agent are spreading an apparently false rumor, which some news outlets continue to disseminate, to the effect that Michigan had disinvited her because of pressure from rich donors. Calling this a “censorship by purse strings,” Walker and her agent insinuate that her disinvitation was brought on by supposedly inappropriate influence by wealthy Jews. This charge seems to have traction with some media and internet sources, because it resonates with long-held beliefs about Jewish wealth, influence, and control of major instituitons.
Walker spread this false rumor by posting an email from her agent on her blog, misrepresenting the nature of the invitation. According to Walker,
The agent’s e-mail said: “I’m saddened to write this because I’m a proponent of free speech and have been brought up to allow everyone to have their say. But I also realize that there are other considerations that institutions are faced with. This afternoon I was contacted by the University of Michigan instructing me to withdraw their invitation due to the removal of funding from the donors, because of their interpretation of Ms. Walker’s comments regarding Israel. They are not willing to fund this program and the university/Women’s center do not have the resources to finance this on their own.”
Inside Higher Ed reports, however, that these charges by Walker are false and that donors had not in fact pressured Michigan to disinvite her. According to Scott Jaschik, a well-regarded higher education reporter:
Gloria D. Thomas, director of the Michigan center that invited Walker, posted an announcement on its website in which she acknowledged rescinding the invitation, but denied that donors had pressured her to do so. “I want to apologize for how we handled our invitation to author Alice Walker,” Thomas wrote. “Upon further research, I decided to withdraw our invitation because I did not think Ms. Walker would be the optimum choice for the celebratory nature of our 50th anniversary event. Donors had no bearing on this decision. Our 50th anniversary funding is completely assured. All donations, for this and other events, are accepted with no provisos or prohibitions regarding free speech.”
Even if Walker’s spurious charges had been true, however, Michigan’s ultimate decision would still have been correct. Michigan should not honor bigots with prestigious invitations, and Walker has lately conducted herself in a manner that is inconsistent with academic honors.
Walker is a harsh critic of Israel, and many readers argue that her writings cross the line into outright anti-Semitism. The Anti-Defamation League said her book published this year, The Cushion in the Road, contained an “80-page screed against Israel and Jews” which is “replete with fervently anti-Jewish ideas and peppered with explicit comparisons between Israel and Nazi Germany.” The ADL added that a quarter of her book is dedicated to a section titled “On Palestine,” which is “rife with comparisons of Israelis to Nazis, denigrations of Judaism and Jews, and statements suggesting that Israel should cease to exist as a Jewish state.” Additionally, the ADL points out that “Walker’s book also attempts to justify terrorism against Israeli civilians, claiming that the ‘oppressed’ Palestinians should not be blamed for carrying out suicide bombings.” In addition, Walker had refused to allow The Color Purple to be translated into Hebrew, because she does not want Israelis to read it.
Michigan does not violate Walker’s academic freedom by disinviting her any more than they violated KKK leader David Duke’s rights by not inviting him in the first place. The University has a prerogative to refuse its podiums to those who do not meet its moral standards, and it is right to apply those standards against Walker. Walker does not deserve to be honored by any university. The University of Michigan should not have invited her in the first place, but it was certainly right to withdraw the invitation.
One of our Facebook page readers has alerted us to an update from the University of Michigan. Provost Martha Pollack has announced that Alice Walker will be invited to speak at another event on the Michigan campus. Moreover, the UM women’s center, which had courageously disinvited Walker, has apparently been forced to apologize for having done so. Since Pollack’s announcement is rather vague, it is not yet clear whether the new invitation will be to a venue that is as prominent or prestigious as the original invitation has been. Either way, however, it is now necessary to retract the praise that we had earlier given to the University. Previously, it had appeared that the University of Michigan considered outright bigotry to be inconsistent with its values. This turns out to be untrue. It is now clear that those who take a stand against anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism at the University of Michigan will be forced to apologize for doing so – all in the name of freedom of speech. Provost Pollack’s message to U of M faculty reads in full as follows:
Dear faculty colleagues,
You may have read questions related to the Center for the Education of Women’s invitation to and subsequent dis-invitation of Alice Walker as a speaker for their 50th anniversary celebration.
I am writing to reiterate the university’s firm commitment to free speech and to the expression of diverse viewpoints. The University of Michigan has a long history of hosting speakers who bring a wide variety of perspectives, and events that focus on challenging topics. Challenging and difficult conversations are the core of our academic mission and spur both individual and community growth. Indeed, we strongly believe that the best response to challenging discourse is more discourse.
At the same time, we respect the right of individual academic units to make decisions about whom they invite to campus, consistent with university principles and values. The Center for the Education of Women has apologized for the way the interaction with Ms. Walker was handled and has made clear to me that their decision was not driven by the content of speech. Their decision to withdraw the invitation was based solely on the celebratory nature they hoped to achieve at their anniversary event.
Consistent with the university’s commitment to free speech, I am pleased to report that the CEW and the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies are joining together to extend an invitation to Ms. Walker to speak in a public forum on campus.
I invite you to contact me if you wish to discuss further.
Martha E. Pollack Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs