California Scholars for Academic Freedom

Letter to George Blumenthal, Chancellor, UCSC

CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM

November 30, 2015

Dr. George Blumenthal, Chancellor

Chancellor’s Office

University of California, Santa Cruz

1156 High Street

Santa Cruz, CA  95060

Dear Chancellor Blumenthal,

We are writing you on behalf of the California Scholars for Academic Freedom,* an organization devoted to defending academic freedom and representing more than one hundred fifty faculty at universities and colleges throughout California. We are disturbed to learn of your November 19 letter to the UCSC campus community written in response to the vote by the UCSC Student Union Assembly to reinstate a call for the University of California to divest from companies which profit from military support for the Israeli occupation or from companies which invest in illegal settlements or the illegal separation barrier in occupied Palestinian territories.

Your letter mischaracterizes the students’ resolution, stating that it was a vote to “divest from Israel.”  In reality, the resolution called only for divestment from four primarily U.S. companies which directly support the Israeli occupation.

Despite your acknowledging the right of the SUA to address such issues, we find it problematic for a chancellor to effectively criticize student representatives for participating in a democratic process of debate and decision making on contentious issues. To claim that taking a principled stance in support of corporate responsibility in reference to international law and human rights might somehow create a chilling climate on campus comes across as discouraging the very kind of activism which UCSC students have practiced for decades without interference from previous chancellors.

Your letter implies that supporting a socially-responsible investment policy would somehow contribute to a possible climate of harassment or worse for students who disagree. However, the vast majority of harassment on University of California campuses has been towards these very students and faculty who, in the finest tradition of democracy and academic freedom, have spoken out in support of human rights and international law in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In particular, there has been a well-funded effort by various right-wing groups to try to silence criticisms of Israeli policies on UC campuses.  As you are well aware, your own campus was dragged through a frivolous lawsuit on this matter which, not surprisingly, was thrown out of court.

Increasingly, such groups are intervening in campus matters across the nation, and they do so with the intent of chilling freedom of expression. Their claims are made in the name of protecting the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students, usually by intemperate and exaggerated characterizations of the statements or scholarly work of those they target. Anti-Semitism—like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression—is a real problem that UCSC should indeed take seriously. However, 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 nonviolent manner.

One of the most disturbing parts of your letter was your implication that “Jewish students” are a homogenous group who will somehow be offended simply by opposition to certain policies of Israel’s right-wing government. Not only is opposition to the Israeli occupation widespread among Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, Jewish students were among those who voted in favor of the divestment resolution. This is why posting a letter conflating Israeli-occupied territories with Israel and conflating Israel with Jewish students is so problematic. In failing to make these critical distinctions, you are encouraging those who seek to stifle academic freedom by effectively equating opposition to what is recognized by the international community—including the U.S. State Department—as a foreign belligerent occupation and encouraging divestment from corporations which support it as somehow encouraging bigotry towards a minority group.

Academic freedom includes the freedom of faculty and students to reach conclusions that contradict previous dogma, whether within the academy or throughout the larger society. This includes raising concerns and proposing actions regarding violations of international legal norms by a government considered to be a strategic ally of the United States. The university cannot and must not promise that in all situations students or faculty will feel intellectual comfort. Indeed, mental and moral discomfort is often essential conditions for serious learning and thoughtful consideration of views that challenge our preconceptions.

Academic freedom is both the freedom of professors and students from administrative or political interference with research, teaching, and governance, and the constitutional academic freedom that insulates the university in core academic affairs from interference by the state. While your letter recognizes differences of opinion, the fact that you would single out this resolution in such a way could indeed be intimidating for probationary faculty and others who might support this and other initiatives in support of human rights, international law, and corporate responsibility. 

Academic freedom also means taking positions and engaging in debates which may be upsetting to some without fear that an administrator will respond in a campus-wide mailing implying there was something wrong in doing so. Indeed, if taking a stance on an issue rooted in international humanitarian law in a foreign country can be construed as somehow “creating an environment in which some students feel alienated and less welcome” and, however indirectly, linked to “unimaginable acts of violence,” this—far more than any student assembly resolution—will indeed have a chilling effect.

It is urgent that you make a strong public stance in support of academic freedom and in support of students who voice opinions about which some may strongly disagree. Your letter implies the opposite by laying the burden of possible harassment on the students voicing these views.  In our long experience, the most effective way for an administration to protect its faculty and students from the attacks of those who wish to silence them is to respond strongly and publicly.

We look forward to hearing your public response.

Stephen Zunes         Katherine King       Sondra Halle

Professor of Politics         Professor of Comparative Literature      Professor of Anthropology

University of San Francisco    University of California, Los Angeles      University of California, Los Angeles

zunes@usfca.edu          king@humnet.ucla.edu                             sonhale@ucla.edu

* CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.

December 1, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment