Two right-wing activists are calling on California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Legislature to investigate California professors who have publicly advocated for the so-called academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions. They claim California tax dollars “are funding the promotion of the boycott of Israel” because these professors, by expressing their views, are using “their state university’s name and taxpayer-funded resources to promote a boycott of Israeli universities and scholars.”
But their claims, on their own terms, make no sense. For in the same breath, the authors praise leaders of California universities like UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano (of deportation infamy) for, they say, along with “more than 200 university leaders,” condemning a resolution by the American Studies Association “endors[ing]” and “honor[ing]” that boycott.
Unlike individual professors who can do no more than speak for themselves, whether through a vote or lecture, both President Napolitano and Chancellor Dirks present their condemnation of the boycott idea as the university’s official point of view. In other words, they are public officials using “their state university’s name and taxpayer-funder resources,” like UC’s website and their communications teams, to promote a political view they support.
The last thing these right-wing activists want, then, is for anyone to take their position seriously, that public university officials and academics are forbidden from expressing their views on disputed issues like the proposed boycott from their posts. Because they do not want Chancellor Dirks or President Napolitano or professors to remain silent about this issue. They want condemnations so loud and clear they can then cite them to convince legislators to make it illegal for professors at public universities to express alternative views on the topic—a clear-cut case of marshaling the state’s resources to enshrine a political orthodoxy by punishing one viewpoint (support of a boycott) while amplifying the opposing viewpoint (opposition to a boycott).
Not to mention that punishing university professors for having opinions about contentious issues is like fining a baker for making bread. One aspect of an academic’s job is to contribute to a public body of knowledge by developing informed opinions and ideas through research and study, not to come to a consensus, tow a party line, or satisfy the public or political interest groups’ pre-existing views. Their task is not artificially constrained to limited areas of expertise or so-called non-political issues, forbidding them from commenting on current events. (Case in point: Alan Dershowitz, the criminal law professor who has also made a career as an ardent defender of Israel, and torture with a “sterilized needle underneath the nail,” but that’s another matter.) That straightjacket would deprive the public of insights from people of knowledge, leaving the public arena to politicians, wealthy businesspeople, and others who hold the reins of power. And it would reflect a world entirely different from our own, where university professors are often featured in television interviews, quoted in newspapers, or published in the op-ed columns to make sense of current affairs.
I am not making a case for or against an academic boycott. I am simply arguing that the government should leave professors and academics alone so they can make their arguments, on any issue and from any perspective, on the merits. Political favoritism, where some political viewpoints are rewarded by the government but others are punished if not banned, is forbidden by the First Amendment and runs afoul of the values necessary not only for free universities, but also a free society. All Californians, regardless of their views on U.S. foreign policy or Israel and Palestine, should recognize this fundamental point.