Limits to academic freedom?

August 2, 2010
Richard Kuper


Should Universities Discipline Faculty Members for Calling for an Academic Boycott of Their Own Institution?

Jeremiah Haber, 02 August 2010

Recently, Gideon, Sa’ar, the Israeli Minister of Education, Moshe Kaveh, the President of Bar Ilan University, and Amnon Rubinstein, the emeritus Tel-Aviv law professor, have held that university faculty members who endorse the academic boycott of Israeli universitities should be disciplined. According to Prof. Kaveh, they should even be fired. Opposing this position, Tel Aviv law professor Chaim Gans argues in today’s Haaretz that endorsements of the boycott should be protected under academic freedom and freedom of speech. His arguments are familiar and should convince any person whose moral compass hasn’t been thrown out of kilter by the current climate of jingoism. But there is one argument that he does not address, the “employee-damage” argument. It goes like this: When an employee calls for a boycott of his place of employment, his disloyalty causes real damage; hence, an employer should be able to discipline the employee, or even fire him.

The employee-damage argument should not be confused with the argument that it is unethical to criticize one’s place of employment, “to spit in the well from which you drink.” Faculty members are sometimes disciplined for ethical breaches, but what faculty member doesn’t criticize his institution? When the president of Bar Ilan university says, “Someone who criticizes the place where he works is ethically obliged to resign,” he dooms his own university into oblivion. Trust me, I was a tenured professor at Bar Ilan, and I know.

Still, even the employee-damage argument is very weak. A hundred Israeli faculty members calling for an academic boycott of their institutions do less damage than the thousands of Israeli academics who regularly strike for better pay. The latter causes real suffering to students and often harm their institutions. The right to strike, indeed, the unionization of faculty members, is recognized in Israel, but in most universities in the United States it is not. There is nothing sacrosanct about it, or, for that matter, about academic tenure. Many, especially in non-democratic countries, argue that faculty members who don’t like their pay should shut up or look for a different job. But in Israel that argument is rejected. So it cannot be the mere fact of damage, or intended damage, that gets you in trouble; that could be used as a blanket argument to suppress any criticism, much less, job actions.

If you think that the analogy to striking faculty is far-fetched, consider a different scenario: A conservative government wishes to cut government spending and targets subsidies to its public universities. At a sensitive juncture in the public debate, a French professor who is philosophically a laissez-faire capitalist, publishes an op-ed endorsing the government proposals, arguing that the universities are already bloated by public funding, and that this is bad for society at large. The university administration and many of her colleagues are appalled by this disloyalty; indeed, one of them makes the argument that she is not protected by academic freedom because she teaches French and not economics. And to make matters worth, the Finance Minister appeals to the professor’s op-ed in his speech before the Parliament, which approves the cuts. Now the professor is certainly being critical of and disloyal to her institution, with detrimental effect. Should she be disciplined?

Well, of course not. Faculty, like other employees, may be disciplined for being derelict in their duties. But it is a very big stretch to say that writing an op-ed, or signing a petition, makes one derelict. Employees should be protected from that sort of retaliation from the employer, and academic faculty, even when not speaking in their field of specialization, should feel free to speak without fear of retaliation.

The real damage to Israeli universities when their faculty members of a given university endorse the academic boycott against Israel is not from the boycotters but from the angry Jewish donors, who threaten to terminate their gifts. Such was the case with Neve Gordon at Ben Gurion University, and with Anat Matar at Tel Aviv University, one of whose donors, I am told, promptly announced that he was transferring his gift from Tel-Aviv University to Bar Ilan University. In this context one should understand the remarks of the Bar Ilan president. The proper response of the Bar Ilan faculty to Prof. Kaveh’s interference in their free speech and their rights as employees is to sign a statement against him, and to do it as quickly as possible.

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