Letter to President of SDSU re Ghassan Zakaria
September 23, 2013
From: California Scholars for Academic Freedom
To: Dr. Elliot Hirshman
President, San Diego State University
Office of the President
San Diego State University
5500 Campanile Drive
San Diego, CA 92182-8000
Dear President Hirshman,
California Scholars for Academic Freedom,* an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred and fifty faculty at universities throughout California, wishes to express its concern regarding an infringement of the academic freedom of one of your faculty, Professor Ghassan Zakaria, a lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and Asian/ Middle Eastern Languages.
According to reports that we have received, and those that have been published both by a local TV news channel and by the organization Stand With Us, Professor Ghassan Zakaria introduced into his Arabic language class a map of the Middle East on which the area of Palestine/Israel was designated solely as Palestine. His Chair has clearly stated that he did so to “reflect the view of Arab-speakers in the region.” A student sent the map and a complaint to Stand With Us, who then contacted the department and, it seems, SDSU Provost Nancy Marlin. ABC TV and Stand With Us report the Provost’s response as follows: “While SDSU encourages scholarly debate and discussion of varying opinions, presenting inaccurate information to students is not acceptable. SDSU’s Provost has conferred with the department chair, who spoke with the faculty member. This inaccurate portrayal will not reoccur.”
This strongly suggests that Professor Zakaria’s right to introduce his class to materials that may unsettle their preconceived world views and challenge what they accept as facts has been interfered with, principally at the behest of a group which notoriously operates as a pressure group and does not, despite its claims, represent the larger Jewish community. We are concerned, in the first place, that any professor or instructor should be vulnerable to having his or her classroom materials censored or censured as a result of claims made by off-campus groups, or even by the university administration. It is a fundamental principle of academic freedom that academic programming, including the content of syllabi and classroom materials, is the purview of the faculty and sheltered to the fullest extent from interference of any kind. In this particular case, the claim that the introduction of such a map into the classroom is tantamount to “presenting inaccurate information to students” may completely miss the pedagogical point of the exercise.
Maps, as geographers and critical cartographers have long shown, are not “factual”, accurate or inaccurate, but representations of perspectives and interpretations of the world. It is hard to imagine, for example, that had an instructor of Serbo-Croatian used a map omitting Kosovo, or a Chicano Studies professor introduced a map showing California or New Mexico as still part of Mexico, they would have been similarly pilloried or reprimanded by the administration. On the contrary, for students to have their assumptions about the normality of their own received views of the world challenged in such a manner can be an invaluable experience, and such practices are a staple of many of our pedagogical practices. Syllabi are often designed to defamiliarize rather than confirm students’ expectations. Were such pedagogical techniques to be constantly subject to one or other external pressure group’s interference, or to an administration’s efforts to appease such pressure—and it is not hard to imagine how many such groups might at some point or other attempt to influence pedagogical practice in a state as diverse as this—the principle of academic freedom in the classroom would be entirely undermined.
This leads to our second concern. Increasingly groups like Stand With Us are intervening in campus matters across the state and the nation and they do so with the intent of chilling freedom of expression. Often, however, their claims are made in the name of protecting the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students. Any such claim that students, or colleagues, have the right to be free from what they consider painful criticism or from being subjected to views contrary to those they hold, is profoundly threatening to the fundamental tenets of university life and intellectual community. As your colleagues the Presidents of CSU San Luis Obispo, Fresno, and Northridge have written in relation to a similar situation, “it is a university’s responsibility to tolerate a wide range of views on issues, even if they are unpopular or minority opinions.” While both federal and state law as well as university policy protect students from discrimination or antagonism based on their religious, ethnic, gender and other identities, no law could possibly protect students or faculty from hearing challenges to their political, religious or cultural beliefs simply on the grounds of their identification with them, so long as such discourse is conducted in a non-coercive and non-violent manner.
To assert the existence of such protections constitutes a profound infringement of the freedom of intellectual inquiry and deliberation on which the university is based. That freedom guarantees neither that any belief of any kind will be held sacrosanct and above criticism, nor that in all and every situation every view will be given equal consideration. The university is the whole colloquy of the views expressed in it and the preservation of a broad and complete spectrum of views, all of them allowed both space and time for their elaboration, is essential to it. Any organization, internal or external, that seeks to limit the free and full deliberation of any viewpoint, or the representation of perspectives inimical to it, trespasses on a principle of academic life so fundamental that the university would be unimaginable without it. It is a principle which cannot and must not promise that in all situations students or faculty will feel intellectual comfort: indeed, mental and moral discomfort are often essential conditions for serious learning and thoughtful consideration of views that challenge our preconceptions.
We are moreover concerned as to the impact that such censure and interference may have on faculty who are lecturers, adjuncts or otherwise unprotected by security of employment or tenure. At a time when, unfortunately, an increasing number of our colleagues lack such protections, it is all the more important that they should not feel threatened in the exercise of their profession, whether by external pressure or by administrative interference. For non-tenure track faculty to feel vulnerable to pressure or surveillance of their work will further undermine the vitality and spontaneity that is critical to successful teaching and the education of students to be critical and independent thinkers.
We therefore urge you as President of SDSU to make a public statement of support and confirmation of Dr. Zakaria’s academic rights and to affirm the independence of faculty at your institution with regard to their pedagogy as to their research and publishing.
California Scholars for Academic Freedom
Professor of Mathematics
California State University, Northridge
Professor of English
University of California Riverside
Dennis D. Loo
Professor of Sociology
California State University, Pomona
Professor of Politics and Coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies
University of San Francisco
Cc: Provost Nancy A. Marlin, SDSU
Professor Diana Guerin
Chair, Academic Senate CSU
Professor & Chair, Dept. of Linguistics & Asian/ Middle Eastern Languages
Vice-Chair, SDSU Senate
*Further information on CS4AF: https://cascholars4academicfreedom.wordpress.com/author/cs4af/
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