Political Science Departments and Political Advocacy: Some Reflections By an Academic Liberal Who Believes in the Importance of Admittedly Fuzzy Boundaries

The recent decision of the Brooklyn College political science department to co-sponsor an event advocating the Palestine Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), and the loud and angry response to this decision by opponents calling for the cancellation of the event and the possible defunding of the College, together raise important questions about politics and academic politics.

I think it is important, in the light of the current events, to clarify the meaning of academic freedom and to defend a conception of academic freedom centered on the ongoing and difficult challenge of discerning and maintaining a fine but necessary line separating academic inquiry from political advocacy. Because I take this line very seriously, I question the decision of political science colleagues at Brooklyn College to co-sponsor the BDS event. But in the same way, because I take the line seriously I strongly oppose efforts not simply to criticize departmental co-sponsorship of the event but to attack the event itself, to label it a form of “hate speech,” and press for its cancelation. The critics of the event have every right to criticize. But they do not have the right to alter or abolish the event because it is not theirs and they do not agree with it. And the principal organizers of the event, Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine, have every right to organize their event as they choose and to choose the speakers that they wish to feature. Period.

I first became involved in discussing this issue on Facebook, where a number of colleagues and Facebook “friends” posted commentaries and appeals to support the Brooklyn political science department. Because these appeals have been widely circulated, and because many people who I respect were rallying behind the banner of academic freedom, I was moved to enter the fray and offer my thoughts on the controversy. Because my “friends” were on the “left” side of this controversy, I addressed what they were saying, and mainly by criticizing what they were saying. The exchanges were engaging, increasingly acrimonious, and valuable.

I care about these issues because I am a proud alumnus of CUNY (Queens College, 1979). I also care because I have spent my entire professional life writing and teaching as a political scientist, and indeed in recent years I have come to assume positions of responsibility for the institutions in which I work, first as the six-year chair of my political science department, and then as editor of one of the top journals in the political science discipline. These experiences confer no special privilege on what I think about the matter at hand—and others clearly think differently. They simply mean that I have spent a lot of time dealing with these issues from a range of academic standpoints.

And so I come by these reflections honestly. It goes without saying that any such comments lack “innocence,” that they represent consequential interventions in an ongoing controversy, that they have no “pure” origins or a priori grounds, and that they are tentative and hypothetical. They are not offered in the spirit of a righteous commentary from on high, and they are motivated by a real commitment to academic freedom.

Journalist Glenn Greenwald has done much to publicize the controversy in two recent Guardian pieces defending the political science department from its critics. Greenwald is right about the lynch mob mentality of the Dershowitz-led critics of the Brooklyn political science department, and about the ways their efforts endanger academic freedom and also endanger political liberalism in the world. But he is wrong to uncritically defend the Brooklyn political science department’s decision as an expression of academic freedom.

These are complicated ethical, institutional, and legal issues. But three things about the situation are pretty straightforward:

1.         Academic freedom is an essential value of the university and of the society. Broadly speaking, it means that academics are entitled to do their academic work as scholars and teachers of their subjects according to their own lights, consistent with scholarly and professional norms, and they should not be ordered or bullied by administrators much less off-campus groups. Punishing an academic for her controversial publications is a violation of academic freedom. Punishing a teacher for organizing a class that addresses controversial themes or expresses unpopular views is a violation of academic freedom. Clamoring against campus talks featuring controversial or unpopular views, and calling for the cancelation of such talks upon threat of sanctions, is a serious threat to academic freedom. The “lynch mob” that has sprung into action in Brooklyn clearly has little respect for academic freedom. They are its enemies.

At the same time, academic freedom does not mean academic license. Academic freedom does not give faculty and teachers the right to sexually harass students, or to target certain races, religious groups, or genders for criticism in class. Academic freedom does not give an English teacher the right to stand in front of a class every session spouting about his or her favorite television shows or sports teams, without a clear academic focus relating to the teaching of the college-level English course for which the students have enrolled. Nor does it entitle a physicist to offer a course on quantum mechanics and then center an entire syllabus on US drone attacks on Pakistanis or Hamas bombings in Israel. Nor does it entitle a majority of a faculty tenure committee to vote against a candidate’s tenure on the grounds that her work is “radical,” or a university dean to eliminate a course on the grounds that it is “pro-Palestinian.” In such instances a line is crossed, and while the line is fuzzy and not bright, and a historical artifact and not a God-given boundary, it is well understood by most academics, who have no trouble springing into action when they feel that the line is being crossed at the cost of their own academic freedom—and rightly so.

Academic freedom as it has come to be defined and valued in US higher education relates to the freedom of academics to do their scholarly research, publishing, and teaching in the knowledge that their academic work will be judged according to broad academic criteria and not according to extraneous moral, religious, or political criteria. And it protects academics from being punished for expressing or featuring controversial, unpopular, and even incendiary ideas.

2.         Academic departments exist to govern and administer academic scholarly, teaching, and service-related activities that affect their diverse faculty and student constituencies. Most of what academic departments do is fairly mundane and at the same time essential to the primary purpose of a university, which is to educate students. Academic departments also regularly organize conferences and events on controversial topics, and invite speakers to these events who are often controversial. By all appearances, the University of Missouri Law School conference featuring Glenn Greenwald that he describes in one of his pieces was such an event. Entitled “With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Two-Tiered US Justice System,” the event apparently was sponsored by a range of academic departments as well as other groups, and included a range of speakers including other lawyers or law professors. Most importantly, it addressed a theme and did not announce a mobilization—a semantic difference to be sure, but words matter, especially in the academy.

The event co-sponsored by the Brooklyn political science department was originally billed as “Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine presents BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions) against Israel,” though it appears now to be billed as “BDS (Boycotts, Divestment, Sanctions) for Palestinian Rights.” These different formulations matter, and the history of the event’s framing perhaps warrants some explanation. But in any case, the event under either description appears to be not a thematically-based academic panel or lecture but an advocacy event organized by a student advocacy group called Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine. The event is not entitled “The BDS Movement and Palestinian Politics: A Critical Perspective” or “The Palestinian BDS Movement as a Social Movement Strategy of Resistance,” and it makes no pretense of featuring either a political science analysis (there are many brilliant and pro-Palestinian political scientists who can speak on this topic from their own political science perspectives, but Judith Butler is not a political scientist) or a philosophical or psychoanalytic analysis (Butler’s specialties, for which she enjoys much deserved praise). Nor does the event feature a talk by Judith Butler in her capacity as a public intellectual, on say “The Ethical Challenges and Calumnies I Face as a Jewish Social Theorist Who Vocally Writes in Support of Palestinian Rights and Supports the Boycott of Israel and is Attacked For Doing So.” Any of the framings just noted would clearly constitute a thematic academic talk of the kind that regularly takes places on campuses across the country, and it would be entirely legitimate for a political science department to decide to co-sponsor or organize such a talk regardless of its controversial nature. But the event in question is not such an event. It is, apparently, a joint presentation by Butler and a Palestinian activist on the topic of “The importance of BDS in helping END Israeli Apartheid and the Illegal Occupation of Palestine.” It is, in short, a strategic discussion, by two social movement activists—one of whom also happens to be a brilliant social theorist– of BDS as a means of advancing (a version of) the cause of Palestinian liberation (the original billing was indeed “against Israel”).

The event presents a political discussion for those committed to “ending Israeli apartheid” and those possibly interested in being persuaded—entirely legitimate—to join the struggle. And it is entirely appropriate for campus student groups and their faculty supporters to organize such an event. But it is not appropriate for a political science department—an academic unit that exists to govern academic business among diverse colleagues bound together by scholarly and professional commitments and not by political allegiances—to organize or to sponsor or co-sponsor such an event. A campus is a place where freely associated student and faculty groups should be free to robustly assemble, advocate, and criticize, and to organize on controversial political issues. A campus should provide space for such events as part of the broad educational mission of the university. And students and faculty should never be academically punished for organizing, promoting, and participating in these events during their free time. And outside groups who seek to press their own agendas on student and faculty groups ought to be kept outside by serious academic leaders. But it does not follow from any of this that an academic unit has any business endorsing a political event seeking to mobilize attendees in a specific political direction—whether the event be a call to action against “Israeli apartheid” or a celebration of Israeli Independence Day. For a political science department to organize a speaker series on Palestinian politics is one thing. For it to co-sponsor the publicity and organizing efforts of political groups—whether “Students Against Israel” or “Students for Palestine” or “Students Against Palestine” or “Students for AIPAC”—is another.

Academic freedom is not the freedom of academics to use their university-based resources or intellectual credibility and authority to do whatever they like or feel strongly about on campus. It is the freedom to use their university-based resources and intellectual credibility to advance the causes of scholarship, teaching, and educational service according to scholarly and professional norms.

The angry group mobilizing against the political science department’s sponsorship of the BDS event definitely threatens academic freedom. For it knows no bounds and has no respect for academic autonomy at all. It is a political herd. It has mobilized before on this campus and on campuses more generally to harass those who articulate views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that it opposes. It has attacked brilliant scholars and intellectuals—Tony Judt, Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, Rashid Khalidi, Judith Butler, and many others—who have articulated criticisms of Israel. [JI1] It will do so again. And when it mobilizes to endanger academic freedom, it ought to be opposed in the name of academic freedom.

At the same time, the critique of the particular sponsorship in question was not itself a call to limit academic freedom. It was a call upon academic administration to acknowledge and to enforce boundaries that are in fact important to academic freedom—the boundaries separating academic scholarly and teaching work, on the one hand, and political advocacy on the other.

3.         Without such boundaries the academy is reduced to a play of political forces, a contest not likely to benefit freedom of inquiry. I have sympathy for at least some of well-meaning political scientists who support the BDS sponsorship, for I know them to be good people with serious intellectual and ethical commitments. At the same time, the political science faculty who chose to arrange for the department to co-sponsor the BDS event chose, perhaps deliberately and perhaps without full reckoning of the likely consequences, to involve their department—not simply individual members of their department, but the department as a unit of the university with intellectual and budgetary authority– in a clearly billed political advocacy event. Having done so, they have been set upon by a politically much more powerful counter-movement that threatens their event, their commitments, and also values important to all members of the university community.

The lynch mob that has sprung into action ought to be opposed, and it is a good thing that it seems to have been set back, at least for now.

But properly opposing the lynch mob requires a serious commitment not simply to the rhetoric but to the practice of academic freedom and autonomy. For this reason, those supporters of the Brooklyn College political science department who continue to insist that the department has been entirely “in the right” from the start, are being disingenuous when they appeal for solidarity in the name of academic freedom while simultaneously denouncing the efforts of their outside opponents to influence college affairs. For if it is right for some academics to align with Palestinian boycott activists by furnishing these activists with the university/departmental imprimatur, then it is hard to see how it is a violation of right for other academics—and there are always other academics—to join with their off-campus allies to contest this sponsorship.

We have now entered the terrain of friend/enemy politics pure and simple. At this point, academic autonomy and academic freedom have little place, and all boundaries separating academic institutions from political contestation have been effaced. I doubt that such a state of affairs well serves scholarly life or the vitality of universities or public enlightenment and social justice in the broader political world.

Had the political science department co-sponsored a talk by Judith Butler on the themes of any one of her many recent books and articles, this would have been entirely appropriate according to widely accepted academic norms. And had Judith Butler spent her time while visiting campus giving other talks, including pro-BDS talks sponsored by Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine,  that too would have been entirely unexceptional. In that event Alan Dershowitz, Dov Hikind and their ilk would have had no leg to stand on in their criticism. In that event they would have been thugs who appeared to be thugs to all who take academic freedom seriously. I am not naïve enough to presume that had a different course been followed this group might have been less strident or even less successful in mobilizing opinion. But I do believe that such a different course would have done less to place the university at risk and more to justify the broad support of academic freedom that is now being sought.

It appears that the political scientists who pressed for the sponsorship either hadn’t considered this alternative method of bringing Judith Butler to campus to speak, or perhaps considered it too liberal and wished to make a more radical statement. Only those directly involved are privy to these details. But as soon as those directly involved acted, they made an issue of academic freedom, and they contributed to creating a situation where it is not simply their event but the political science department, the college, CUNY, and the more general public perception of what transpires on college campuses that is now in question. Further, by broadly circulating public appeals for solidarity and support on the grounds of threats to their academic freedom, they have invited both the recipients of these appeals and the broader academic community to join the discussion.

Some of the organizers of the co-sponsorship continue to justify this effort as an unexceptional instance of academic freedom and normal scholarly business. They are entitled to do this and others are entitled to agree with them. But they are likely to lose out to the better-organized forces on the other side. And even if their event goes forward, as it apparently will, and should, a broader mobilization against academic freedom has now been baited into action that threatens to have a chilling effect on campuses, and not simply on their events, but on many kinds of events.

Academic freedom requires that every individual scholar and student be free to do their learning, writing, and teaching without fear or favor, in the knowledge that they will be judged academically according to academic norms and will not be punished for expressing controversial views either on campus or off campus. This freedom requires that campuses be places of vigorous scholarly discussion and debate and also spaces for the free expression and performance of the entire range of cultural experience in the society, from classical music and hip hop to jazz to the most “explicit” film to the advocacy of a wide range of viewpoints, from Palestinian nationalism (or bi-nationalism) and the struggle against environmental racism to the US Second Amendment and the legitimacy or not of drone strikes on “terrorists.” And it requires that individuals on campus be free to express themselves consistent with their academic responsibilities. But it also requires that academic authorities be mindful of their roles and responsibilities, and of the conditions of the intellectual and budgetary authority that they enjoy. It is right for a department to invite a speaker to talk on a theme broadly related to the topics of that department’s academic mission. And it is fine for a speaker so invited to do other things while on campus. But it is wrong for a department to co-sponsor a politically defined event and thereby to give its imprimatur to the cause that this event seeks to advance. These are fine lines. They are not God-given. They are the product of much learning. And they are justified mainly because their consequences are good and the consequences of their abandonment are not very good at all.

I think it is important to be clear on this for the sake of the broad issues at stake in the Brooklyn College controversy.

I also think it is important not to be pious or naïve about the issues on the table.

Events continue to unfold in Brooklyn. Whether or not the event goes on—as it should and apparently will—much remains in question. Under the present circumstances, it would seem that the recent official statement of Brooklyn College President Gould is a good one.

Her disavowal of college support for BDS does not constitute an announced opposition to BDS, though her declared commitment to ongoing contacts with Israeli universities does imply a college commitment to nurturing productive academic ties to a wide range of universities, which is arguably in tension with BDS. In my opinion she could have and probably should have put this slightly differently, stating that the college allowing a BDS event on campus does not constitute official institutional support for BDS but only support for students and faculty to invite a range of speakers, and that the college continues to support productive ties to a wide range of universities in Israel and Palestine and China and Russia, etc., etc. At the same time, President Gould has been placed in an incredibly difficult position by the political science department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS event. For academic co-sponsorship is a kind of support—typically involving publicity, the recommendation that people attend, and typically involving some financing (even if not in this case)—and since the department’s co-sponsorship did imply support of the BDS event, and since the department is a unit of the university whose budget is allocated by the university, President Gould was forced into the position of explaining what appeared to be the university’s “support” for the BDS event. Her comment on BDS, while not ideal, represents the kind of artful diplomatic comment that one can only reasonably expect of an astute college president.

In the same way, her emphatic support of vigorous public discussion on campus, and her refusal to cancel the BDS event, is laudatory, and deserves the support of everyone who takes academic values seriously. As in her special genuflection to “Israel,” the way President Gould expresses this refusal to cancel is less than ideal. For her statement completely fudges the academic freedom issue originally posed by the department’s co-sponsorship, and conflates the right of individual faculty and students to organize political events on campus—which warrants full support—and the right of academic departments to co-sponsor political events—which does not warrant support. But of course, to underscore this distinction would have been to keep the controversy alive and to place the political science department in the very difficult position of being implicitly “censured” by the college President. Here too, the President’s statement seems diplomatic and wise, and more importantly, her refusal to cancel the event is wise, brave, and right.

Does President Gould’s statement constitute a “victory” for the political science department, as some seem to claim? It surely constitutes a victory for the academic freedom of student groups and their faculty supporters to organize events like the BDS event, and this is a victory worth defending. In a broader sense, it constitutes a public defense of the political science department, which will hopefully be relieved of the state of emergency into which it seems to have been thrown by the vicious response of its right-wing critics.

It remains an open question whether the broader public fallout of this event for Brooklyn College and for CUNY will represent a “victory” for academic values. As someone who has been a college teacher for almost thirty years, and who has served for six years as a department chair of a large and diverse department, I also wonder whether the Brooklyn political science department will be well served by this situation, even if the proponents of the BDS sponsorship are “victorious.” For I would submit that the true measure of success of an academic department is its ongoing ability to promote excellent and compelling teaching and scholarship, and this requires not symbolic “political victories,” but credibility among existing and potential colleagues and students; effective working relationships with academic deans, administrators, and presidents; and the ability to project academic seriousness as well as the ability to continue to obtain scarce university funds for the purpose of sponsoring (a range of) often high-priced speakers. I do not mean to suggest that the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS event entails its failure on these scores. But everything I know about the academy tells me that the fact that the BDS event goes on has nothing to do with its success, and suggests to me the department will have an uphill battle in its effort to thrive as an academic department. This is clearly not the most pressing moral value to be sure. But it is something that intellectuals in their academic capacity ought to care about quite a bit, and that academic political scientists who work in a political science department ought to care about a lot.

The Brooklyn situation will unfold as it unfolds. And the principal protagonists of this unfolding are those Brooklyn College faculty and administrators—and their diverse students– who must deal with the groups who have been mobilized against the college. Most of us who are not directly involved are spectators, but also colleagues who may be called upon to think about what they consider right and to act on this. The current crisis is not the first and will not be the last. And the arguments will continue, as they should. And I submit that as they do, it will be a good and wise thing if sincere and ethically serious colleagues moved to act politically think hard both about the norms and values that constrain public intellectuals in their academic capacities, and about the ways that these constraining norms and values help promote what remain the freest spaces of critical inquiry in an anti-intellectual world. To be mindful of this is not to be an apologist for the failings of the academy, which most assuredly is not an ivory tower. It is to be serious about the best ways to improve universities as spaces of educational and scholarly development and of public enlightenment. To be mindful in this way is most definitely an ethical commitment, and indeed a difficult commitment to navigating some pretty fine lines. It represents a form of what Michael Walzer long ago called “the art of separation.” Such a commitment is liberal in the broad sense in which we talk about “liberal arts” and also in the specific sense in which we invoke “academic freedom.” And it is a commitment worth strongly defending.


Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He has written about these issues in “Social Science and Liberal Values in a Time of War” (Perspectives on Politics, September 2004); and “Reflections on Scientific Inquiry, Academic Freedom, and Enlightenment” (Journal of Chinese Political Science, September 2011)..

*Actual immigration is much higher because the quotas do not apply to immediate-family relatives of U.S. citizens (spouses, minor children, and parents).

×