Message to the Pitzer College Community from President Melvin L. Oliver

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This evening, our College Council, composed of faculty, students and staff, met to consider the faculty-originated motion to suspend Pitzer’s direct-enroll program at the University of Haifa in Israel. This discussion produced passionate arguments and debates on several sides of the issue. Ultimately, a majority of College Council’s eligible voters (faculty, students and staff) passed an amended motion that, among other things, requires the suspension of Pitzer’s study abroad relationship with the University of Haifa in Israel. Under the College’s system of shared governance, the motion is a recommendation to the president of the College. As president of Pitzer College, I have determined that I will not implement this recommendation.

I fully respect the actions of the College Council, thus I do not make this decision lightly. I have had several months to consider my position on this matter, should the College Council pass a motion that suspends our direct-enroll program at the University of Haifa in Israel. While my decision not to implement the recommendation is being communicated immediately, it is a decision that I have reached in a careful and deliberate manner. It is informed by multiple conversations over the past several months with our elected representatives on the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC), individual faculty, trustees, students, parents and a range of other constituents. The community has read my statement I presented at the previous College Council and discussed and written about it extensively. Having reached my decision, I believe it is proper that I communicate that decision at my earliest opportunity.

My responsibility as president is always to do what I believe to be in the best interests of Pitzer College, and I have concluded that to implement the Council’s recommendation would not meet that test for the following reasons:

  • The recommendation would effectively cause the College—not some of its constituent members, but the College itself—to take an unavoidably political position on one of the most controversial issues of our time. It is rarely, if ever, the role of the College to be taking such positions. It is the College’s job, through its educational process, to help its students determine their own positions and understand what actions each can then take to effect the change they seek.
  • In the very rare instance that Pitzer College does take such a position, common sense dictates that there must be a consensus across all the College’s internal and external constituencies in support of the position. This recommendation fails that test.
  • The recommendation curtails the academic freedom of those students who wish to study at the University of Haifa. Among Pitzer’s core values is the promotion of intercultural understanding, much of that achieved through our vibrant study abroad program that enables our students to reach their own conclusions about some of the world’s most vexing challenges through on-the-ground, face-to-face, people-to-people experience. The recommendation runs directly counter to Pitzer’s core value of intercultural understanding.
  • Although some claim that this is not an academic boycott of Israel, I disagree. The recommendation puts in place a form of academic boycott of Israel and, in the process, sets us on a path away from the free exchange of ideas, a direction which ultimately destroys the academy’s ability to fulfill our educational mission. I categorically oppose any form of academic boycott of any country. We cannot allow our objections to the policies of any nation’s government to become a blanket indictment of the nation itself and, by extension, its citizens.
  • By singling out Israel, the recommendation itself is prejudiced. We do not solve one injustice by committing another. If implemented, the recommendation would unnecessarily alienate a large cross section of the College’s constituencies. The reputational harm to the College would be irreparable and as president of this institution, I cannot permit that to happen.

Some will say that I am taking my own position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in choosing not to implement the recommendation of the College Council. I am not. Instead, I am refusing to permit Pitzer College to take a position that I believe will only harm the College.

Some will say that while I am within my authority to make this decision, it nonetheless conflicts with Pitzer’s culture of shared governance. I am truly saddened to find myself in a position where I feel compelled not to implement a recommendation of the College Council. Nonetheless, just as the College Council exercised its right to make this recommendation, I, too, exercise my prerogative and make this decision squarely within our existing structure of shared governance. That authority is vested in me precisely so that I can make this kind of difficult, contentious, and surely with many, unpopular decision when faced with a situation that I believe puts at risk the long-term best interests of Pitzer College.

The College’s mission is first and foremost to educate our students. Social responsibility is a core value of the College and we hope social justice becomes the life’s mission of many of our graduates and a guiding principle for all our students and alumni. But social justice is not, and in itself cannot be, the mission of the College, or our mission would become political and not educational.

I have written here about what will not happen at Pitzer College. Let me now talk about what can happen—a way for us to move forward as a community and address as best we can many of the issues raised in the College Council’s recommendation.

To that end, I will work with the Faculty Executive Committee (FEC) to examine our study abroad program, with a focus on how it can better reinforce in our students the core values of the College. Consistent with that goal, we will consider ways to ensure that our students attain a deep understanding of the key social justice issues in the countries where they study. Likewise, we will seek to expand our students’ opportunities for study abroad in the Middle East and around the world. Our goal must be greater engagement, not less, in the world our students will one day lead.

To both those who agree with my decision and those who do not, I ask you to remember that we are all of one community, the Pitzer community. Indicative of that community spirit was the extension of the franchise to all student senators and staff council representatives at today’s College Council meeting. In this vein, we must now and always find ways to rise above even our most vehement disagreements so that we may work together, collegially and respectfully, to make Pitzer College the very best it can be.

Melvin L. Oliver
President
Pitzer College

Message to the Pitzer College Community from President Melvin L. Oliver

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