California Scholars for Academic Freedom statement on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions

Willow Yang/File

The California Scholars for Academic Freedom, or CS4AF, wish to add our collective voice in support of the op-ed on the topic of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, by eight pro-Palestine UC Berkeley faculty members, published in The Daily Californian on Feb. 19. This op-ed was written in response to the rejection of another pro-BDS op-ed that was previously submitted to the Daily Cal by two New York University faculty members and subsequently published on the website Mondoweiss. As a group of more than 200 academics and intellectuals with a commitment to defend academic freedom and First Amendment rights of faculty members and students in California’s institutions of higher education, CS4AF wholeheartedly endorses the sentiments expressed in these two pieces and joins their authors in condemning the multiple efforts by UC administrators to stifle activism and even discussion of the merits of the BDS movement.

Here, we would like to focus specifically on the impact of the university’s decisions on students and nontenured faculty members (probationary and lecturer faculty members). Like tenured faculty members, they face challenges to one of the most treasured rights at a university, academic freedom, but their vulnerability is greater. Students, in particular, have fought hard since the ‘60s to maintain this right. The current challenges to the right to academic freedom have come from various sources, but their shared goal is to curtail students’ right to express their views and to debate controversial issues.

Students themselves do not, of course, agree with one another on these issues. That is the point. As for probationary and lecturer faculty members, the actions of the university’s decisions are chilling. We are concerned that they will have an adverse effect on the ability of probationary and temporary lecturers to exercise their academic freedom, for fear of losing their jobs. A university is a space that offers the academic freedom to have these debates. We believe it imperative to stand together in defense of these first principles. They are non-negotiable.

As both op-eds forcefully argue, administrators would do well to learn the lessons of the university’s own history and desist from their one-sided criticism of Palestinian advocacy. And the UC system needs to resist the pressure of offending important donors with its increasing reliance on private donors. It was, in fact, this very issue that prompted representatives from CS4AF to attend the UC Board of Regents meeting Jan. 16 to express our concerns with the role of funding and political influence on UC campuses, specifically regarding the website Canary Mission and one of its former funders, the San Francisco-based Helen Diller Family Foundation.

We decided to be proactive in challenging the Canary Mission. For the past 3 ½ years, Canary Mission has aimed to document individuals on college campuses whom they allege are anti-Semitic. But Canary Mission targets individuals who dare to criticize Israel even if those individuals are not anti-Semitic. This online blacklist has harmed hundreds of students and faculty members who dare to criticize the state of Israel. We also know of lecturers and assistant professors who feel their academic rights are threatened and cannot do their work properly because of these restrictions.

In our statement to the UC Board of Regents, we requested that the regents make a public statement condemning the Canary Mission and also that they distance the university from the Diller Foundation, which provided $100,000 in 2017 to Canary Mission. The UC system cannot remain silent on this issue because this curtails academic freedom and rights.

Silence might embolden well-funded groups that are attempting to harm the increasing numbers of students, faculty members and the broader community of higher education in our state who are taking a stand against injustice. The UC system needs to maintain the public mission of the university by speaking out about this. By sending a strong message that the university will not allow itself to become complicit in the activities of such groups, we can protect the rights of current and future generations of Californians to academic freedom and free speech.

Lisa Rofel is an anthropology professor emeritus at UC Santa Cruz and a coordinator for California Scholars for Academic Freedom. Vida Samiian is a professor of linguistics and dean emerita at CSU Fresno and a coordinator for California Scholars for Academic Freedom.