“Equity and Inclusion” at Connecticut College (see important update)

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Last week, I wrote about the kerfuffle involving false accusations of racism against Connecticut College professor Andrew Pessin.That controversy seems to have arisen out of an effort to shame and silence a rare active pro-Israel voice at the college. A pro-Palestinian student activist, a founder of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, dredged up an old Facebook post of Pessin’s eight months after it was written in which he analogized the situation in Gaza to a “wild pit bull,” refused to accept his totally reasonable explanation that the derogatory metaphor in the post was aimed at Hamas and not Palestinians in general, and refused to accept his apology for any misunderstanding. Instead, she chose to make an international incident out of Pessin’s post, accusing him of racism.[UPDATE: The most serious charge against Professor Pessin, that in the comments to his post “he directly condoned the extermination of a people,” turns out not to be simply a foolish or aggressive reading of an ambiguous post, but utterly and obviously false. Two students wrote to the school news paper that Pessin

compared Gazan Palestinians to “rabid pit bulls” who need to be caged.  He described the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a cycle of letting the “snarling dogs” out of their “cage” and then beating them back into it. One person named Nicole commented on the post suggesting the “dogs” be put down.  Professor Pessin responded, “I agree.” Professor Pessin directly condoned the extermination of a people.  A member of our community has called for the systematic abuse, killing, and hate of another people. 

Pessin had deleted his post and comments when the activist student, Lamiya Khandaker, first contacted him about it, because he thought he had inadvertently but genuinely offended her. Pessin had taken a screen shot of the post, but not the comments. The comments have now surfaced, and it turns out that Nicole, who clearly understood the original metaphor to refer to Hamas, wrote, “terrorists should be put down, just like the dog,” to which Pessin responded “I agree.” Lest their be any remaining ambiguity, Nicole clarified, just two comments down, “I said terrorists. I meant Hamas and not all Palestinians.”

At this point, I think it’s fair to call the allegations against Pessin a hoax.]

Despite this rather strong circumstantial evidence that the whole controversy was ginned up to score anti-Israel political points, faculty and students at the college, in correspondence with me and in comments on this blog and elsewhere, have insisted that the controversy had “nothing to do” with Israel/Palestine, but rather was entirely about Pessin’s allegedly “dehumanizing rhetoric” and an effort to create a safe and welcoming campus climate.

I suppose that despite the wealth of circumstantial evidence suggesting that the controversy was invented for political reasons, it’s possible that some of those making that claim actually believe it wasn’t, that they are if not savvy, at least sincere.

However, one group of individuals who apparently don’t even pretend to believe the “it’s not about Israel/Palestine” claim are the Interim Deans of Equity and Inclusion, Sunil Bhatia, David Canton, Sandy Grande.

A source sent me a preliminary program of events they (more specifically, Dean Grande seems to be primarily responsible, but the memo announcing the event was sent under all their names) have planned over the next three weeks in response to recent events on campus.

Tuesday, April 14, the college will host Fida Qishta, identified as “Documentary Film Maker, ‘Where Should The Birds Fly”: A Film on the Lives of Palestinians Living in Gaza.’”

On Thursday, the college will be hosting “A Dialogue on Palestine: History, Context, People: Sa’ed Adel Atshan, Brown University Eva [sic]  Spangler, Boston College.”

Someone must have complained about the one-sided nature of this programming, because two panels on Israel are in the works, but have, as of last Thursday, neither confirmed date nor confirmed speakers.

None of the other scheduled or pending events directly are about any foreign people, culture, or foreign policy issue. So the Pessin controversy is not about Israel/Palestine? Really?

I sent Dean Grande a few questions about the choices of topics and speakers:

(1) You have two panels, with outside speakers, planned on Palestine and the Palestinians. All of the speakers are anti-Israel activists. Meanwhile, you have two events planned regarding Israel, neither of which has a firm date, nor any speakers. How did it come to pass that programming on diversity and inclusion so prioritized anti-Israel voices, without at the same time scheduling anyone who might provide a contrary perspective?

(2) Speaking of the anti-Israel speakers, one of them, Fida Qishta, is the former Gaza coordinator for the International Solidarity Movement, a pro-terrorist organization. More specifically, its mission statement proclaims, “We recognize the Palestinian right to resist Israeli violence and occupation via legitimate armed struggle.” Do you believe that bringing such an individual to campus furthers the goals of inclusion and diversity, especially with regard to Israeli students and faculty, whom the ISM believes are legitimate targets of “armed struggle,” i.e., murder?

(3) You have a “dialogue” on the schedule between Eve Spangler, an anti-Israel activist who likes comparing Israelis to Nazis, e.g., and Sa-ed Adel Atshan, a “Palestine Solidarity Activist” who advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.

(a) shouldn’t a “dialogue” include participants who disagree with each other, rather than reinforce each other’s political positions?

(b) Spangler is a sociologist who, though she is in recent years an anti-Israel political activist, doesn’t appear to have any actual scholarly expertise on the subject of “Palestine,” nor, by all indications on her c.v., does she know Arabic. Why would Connecticut College bring in a political activist rather than a scholar of the subject to discuss the subject of the people and history of Palestine?

(c) Given the that you are an interim dean of “inclusion,” how do you justify bringing in a speaker who advocates boycotting Israel? Do you believe academic boycotts are consistent with inclusion?

(4) You have a speaker addressing “dehumanizing language” and violence. This seems pretty clearly aimed at the accusations leveled against Prof. Pessin. Do you plan to give Pessin an opportunity to be heard or to respond?

(5) Why are two scheduled sessions, and two unscheduled sessions, devoted to Israel/Palestine to begin with? Despite the Pessin controversy, goings-on in Israel/Palestine seem rather far afield from your mandate as a dean of equity and inclusion at Connecticut College, and there are no other foreign topics on the agenda.  How would you respond to those who might allege that you are rewarding anti-Israel forces on campus for stirring the Pessin controversy by making  Israel/Palestine such a prominent topic in College-sponsored events?

I received no response from Dean Grande, but I did receive a response from Pamela Dumas Serfes, Vice President for Communications: “I trust that should you decide to blog about them, in the interest of fairness, completeness and accuracy, you too will note the preliminary nature of the programs and that the College is seeking additional program ideas and speakers to further diversify the undertaking.”

Fair enough. But I think the above establishes two points: (1) That to university officials charged with “equity and inclusion” at Connecticut College, the Pessin controversy really is about furthering the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel cause; and (2)  as is  so often the case, “inclusion” (or “diversity”) is code at Connecticut College for trying to promote left-wing ideological views as campus orthodoxy, at the expense of the actual inclusion of those disfavored by radical activists.

UPDATE: If Connecticut College wants to repair the damage to its reputation all this has caused and is causing, it can start by relieving professors Bhatia, Canton, and especially Grande of their responsibilities as interim deans of equity and inclusion.

And I hope (but don’t expect) a swift apology from Connecticut College’s academic departments that instead of defending their colleague, or at least reserving judgment, rushed to condemn Pessin, such as this missive from the History department:

To the Campus Community,

The history department would like to clearly state that we condemn speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality. In response to the many events that transpired on campus prior to and during spring break regarding a Facebook post by a member of our faculty, we join the CCSRE in condemning hate speech.

The history department would like to note the particularly salient tactic of dehumanizing language as a means to justify brutality and lull otherwise “well intentioned” people into silence and, effectively, complicity in racism, sexism, discrimination, colonialism and the numerous genocides throughout human history.

We make this public statement with particular attention to those students, staff, and faculty whose identities and affiliations position them as the targets of such speech. We feel a public statement is essential to supporting the well-being of various members of the Connecticut College community, their right to educational opportunity, and their right to work in a non-hostile environment. We will continue to play our part in creating spaces for productive engagements around inclusive excellence. We look forward to collaborating with others to help move the College forward in achieving our goal of full participation.

[Technical note: I inadvertently hit “publish” for a not-quite-finished version of this post Sunday morning. I then immediately changed its status to “publish later”. The post never appeared on the Post’s VC webpage, but some readers saw it via Twitter or RSS feeds. Apologies for the confusion.]

David Bernstein is the George Mason University Foundation Professor at the George Mason University School of Law in Arlington, VA. He is the author of Rehabilitating Lochner: Defending Individual Rights Against Progressive Reform (2011); You Can’t Say That! The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws (2003);

“Equity and Inclusion” at Connecticut College (see important update)

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