Faculty Letters to UC President & Chancellors on AAA/BDS Controversy

Article originally posted by Chris Newfield at Remaking the University

We post two faculty responses to the letterthat the University of California’s president–in the company of all ten campus chancellors–sent to the American Anthropological Association to express their “concern about the Association’s proposed resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions.” The AAA membership vote on the resolution opened on April 15th. Materials on the Association debate can be found at AAA Resources Regarding Engagement with Israel/Palestine.

Letter 1, from Professor Fogu to Chancellor Yang, has been endorsed by the UCSB Faculty Association.


To: Chancellor Henry Yang
From: Claudio Fogu, Dept. of French & Italian, UC Santa Barbara

I am writing to express my concern for your signing—along with the nine other UC Chancellors—a letter drafted by UC President Janet Napolitano, dated April 19, 2016, urging members of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) not to ratify a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions. I am fully aware of the fact that along with many other universities, the University of California, in the person of its president (Policy 1300), has already expressed its opposition to “academic boycotts” in the past, and has the right to do so. I question, however, both the inclusion of chancellors in signing this letter, the lack of any consultation with UC faculty about its content and/or the wisdom of sending it, and, most importantly, the timing of it.

If Policy 1300 does give our President the right “to speak for the University,” this right comes to her from the Board of Regents, and it presumably refers to all matters of administrative and public representation of the University as an institution. On the other hand, the University of California also has a long-standing tradition and commitment to shared governance, especially when it comes to questions impacting academic matters. The two principles are clearly at odds with each other and it is therefore a delicate matter of interpretation and political acumen for a President to decide when it is appropriate to speak on behalf of the University. The fact that President Napolitano asked all ten chancellors to sign her letter indicates to my mind that she was not certain of having the authority to send that letter and therefore sought to buttress her right by involving the chancellors. At a time in which shared governance has been eroded for several years in the system, it is particularly disturbing to witness this instrumental use of authority and lack of consultation with UC Senates and faculty on matters of great concern to the faculty.

I am not referring to the actual merits of the academic boycott under consideration by members of the AAA, but to the very serious interference with the voting of a resolution by members of a scholarly association who are employed or may be employed by our university. It is one thing to speak for or against resolutions taken by scholarly associations in favor of the academic boycott of Israeli universities, as it was the case with the American Studies Association in 2013. The protest came after the vote had taken place, and, whether one agrees with it or not, it did not interfere with the actual voting procedures. To send a letter that explicitly claims that “the University of California believes that an academic boycott is an inappropriate response to a foreign policy issue and one that threatens academic freedom and sets a damaging precedent for academia,” and therefore “urge(s) Association members to consider the boycott’s potentially harmful impacts and oppose this resolution,” is not only misrepresentative of the percentage of UC-system scholars who support the boycott, but also a far cry from the right to public critique and from the defense of academic freedom invoked in the letter. For an institution that hires the members of an association to urge them to vote one way or another is at best interference, and at worse intimidation.

With all due respect I hope you will consider consulting at least with the head of the Academic Senate next time you are invited by UCOP to sign a letter on behalf of UCSB.


To: President Janet Napolitano and Chancellors Dirks, Katehi, Gillman, Block, Leland, Wilcox, Khosla, Hawgood, Yang and Blumenthal
From: Mark LeVine, Dept. of History, UC Irvine

I am writing to express my strong concern and anger at your April 19, 2016 letter to the American Anthropological Association regarding the ongoing vote of the organization’s membership on whether to endorse the Academic Boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Let me begin by pointing out that when the ten chancellors of the UC system and its President can’t even remember the correct name of the organization they are writing to criticize—you called the AAA, one of the oldest and most prominent learned societies in the United States, the “American Association of Anthropologists”–it does not auger well for the accuracy and cogency of the arguments that follow. Sadly, this fear was confirmed by the contents of the letter. As has already been expressed by colleagues at UC Berkeley after former Chancellor Birgeneau and EVC and provost Robert Breslauer attempted to interfere in the AAA vote late last year, it is “unacceptable that [senior UC Administrators] would lend their voices to the organized intimidation of critics of Israeli state policy, and we particularly worry about the effect of such intimidation on our junior and more vulnerable colleagues.”

Far from being the private opinion of academics concerned about the potential actions of colleagues, you are speaking directly and officially for the University when you declare that “the University of California believes that an academic boycott is an inappropriate response to a foreign policy issue and one that threatens academic freedom and sets a damaging precedent for academia.” Before even offering a critique of your arguments I find myself compelled to point out that while you have come together to take a highly public, united stand against a boycott of academic institutions complicit in a five-decades long occupation, you have shown nothing close to this level of attention or unified voice to condemn the very real violations of academic freedoms associated with the ongoing systematic sexual harassment (and worse) suffered by women at UC, dozens of new cases of which have come forward in the period between the Regents’ much condemned attempt to equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism in its March 23 policy statement and your present letter. I would like to know, How can you justify the amount of time and energy spent coordinating this letter when no similar collective letter from all of you has been issued surrounding the clear and ongoing dangers faced by women at UC, not to mention the harassment experienced by various minority communities on campuses across the University? (In fact, such collective letters on issues not directly related to the University are an unusual occurrence.)

Turning to the letter, I would like to ask, by what right and upon what evidence can you, without a vote of the Academic Senate, make an explicit declaration of what the “University of California believes”? As far as I can tell, whenever members of the UC community have expressed their collective opinions on the issues of academic boycotts or BDS more broadly, large percentages of those participating in such discussions have endorsed them, as evidenced by the votes of the Associated Students of UC (ASUC), the system-wide student Senate, as well as several campus AS Senates, in support of divestment resolutions. Moreover, the publicly available evidence clearly shows that substantially more UC professors are on record either endorsing BDS or at least refusing to label it as anti-Semitic then are their colleagues offering the criticisms outlined in your letter. This was most recently made clear by the overwhelming opposition to the Regent’s universally condemned attempt to classify anti-Zionism (and particularly BDS) as a form of anti-Semitism. Nowhere does your letter mention the diversity of opinion at UC on the issue you are making such a definitive pronouncement.

While as individuals you have every right to speak your views on BDS or any issue, you clearly do not have an imprimatur to speak on this issue on behalf of the UC community on the issue of BDS, never mind adopt a position that is clearly at odds with the majority of its publicly expressed opinions. Your letter can only be understood as reflecting a troubling disregard both for shared governance and for academic freedom and honesty as well. By using your power as the senior leadership of UC to declare an official policy that is in opposition to the expressed opinions of a significant share of the UC community without any discussion of the issue by Academic Senate, you are potentially causing significant harm to members of our community. This is especially true of students, staff and junior or non-Senate faculty who might feel intimidated by your declaration of official policy into silencing their constitutionally protected opinions.

Your letter is also extremely troubling because it seriously distorts the nature and meaning of the BDS call under discussion by the AAA and other professional organizations and, as important, utterly ignores the disastrous situation faced by Palestinians during half a century of Israeli occupation. Beginning with the latter, as the newly released State Department annual report on human rights once again makes clear in its second paragraph (and which is supported by the regular reports of every major global, Israeli and Palestinian human rights monitoring organization there is), Israel systematically denies Palestinians the right to education and more broadly “discriminates against Palestinian [citizens] in almost every aspect of society,” while engaging in “unlawful killings, use of excessive force, and torture” against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. And these actions are merely an addition to the mundane brutality and crimes associated with the massive ongoing settlement enterprise whose perpetuation and intensification is the Occupation’s acknowledged goal.

Indeed, your description of the Israeli occupation as merely a “foreign policy issue,” as if it was a trade dispute between WTO members, betrays a particularly shocking ignorance and disregard—I do not know which is worse—of the brutal realities of the Occupation. How, may I ask, can you write a letter expressing such concern over a well-established protest strategy with a long and proven history while saying nothing about the world’s longest occupation and all the very real harm it does? I would like to invite all of you to come to the Occupied Territories and experience life as a Palestinian, particularly a student or professor routinely and systematically denied the right to pursue her or his education, research or teaching, and then explain to the UC community how this debate is merely over a “foreign policy issue.”

Turning to Paragraph 2, you argue that “free expression, robust discourse, and the vigorous debate over ideas and principles are essential to the mission of academic institutions worldwide…. These freedoms enable universities to advance knowledge and to transmit it effectively to its students and to the public. The University of California has a strong tradition of free speech and the free exchange of ideas, and it is our responsibility to defend academic freedom and our scholars’ ability to choose their research and colleagues. Limits to the open exchange of knowledge and ideas between our universities stand in direct opposition to our values and goals.”

This argument is riddled with empirical flaws and inaccuracies that are quite frankly inexcusable coming from senior academics in your positions of administrative power and public prominence.. To begin with, as all the debates over BDS in professional associations such as the AHA, ASA, MESA and now AAA make clear, in no way does the call for an academic boycott entail restrictions on free expression, robust discourse or vigorous debate. In fact, just the opposite is true. The very act of bringing BDS before our professional organizations has stimulated unprecedented debate around the Occupation and the larger conflict.

Moreover, in no way does the BDS call advocate restrictions on “our scholars’ ability to choose their research and colleagues” (to speak for myself, I continue to do research, write and otherwise collaborate with many Israeli scholars). What it does do is suspend institutional cooperation and collaboration with Israeli institutions that are in any manner complicit in the Occupation, which sadly most Israeli universities clearly are. Yes, this policy demands a sacrifice by scholars, both Israelis and their colleagues; but this is a small price to pay to highlight the incredible suffering endured by Palestinians because of the Occupation, including the large-scale destruction of the Palestinian education system during the half century of occupation, systematic thefts of funds and equipment, and prevention of Palestinians from even leaving the Occupied Territories, never mind establishing anything close to the level of collaboration with foreign colleagues and universities that Israel enjoys (please check your records and report to us how much UC has spent collaborating with Palestinian compared with Israeli higher education institutions and scholars).

What’s more, the present policies of uncritical collaboration itself exacts a very high price, on Palestinian education, about which you have nothing to say. Indeed, these realities have led upwards of two dozen Israeli anthropologists to support the BDS call. Did you consult with them or their colleagues in other disciplines in Israel who support BDS to understand the varieties of opinion within Israeli academia on this issue before making your pronouncement? Isn’t that what scholars are supposed to do? Should you, as the most senior scholars at UC, be setting an example in this regard?

Even more troubling, you do not mention in your letter that UC is one of the top 5 institutions receiving “BSF” (US-Israeli Bi-National Science Foundation) grants, with campuses engaged in multiple projects with Israeli universities involving significant research funds. My own campus, Irvine, established the “UC Irvine/Israeli Scholar Exchange Endowment for Engineering Science Program,” whose $2 million endowment supports collaborations with Israeli universities, such as Tel Aviv University and The Technion, which are deeply and publicly implicated in the machinery of the Occupation. A 2014 MOU between Governor Brown and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, and the legislative resolutions supporting it, have further “unfettered collaboration between Israeli and California Universities.” Unfettered for Israelis, yes. Impossible even to dream of for Palestinians, however, as they have no comparable collaboration, and very often are illegally prevented from leaving the Occupied Territories by Israel when they do. I do not recall the last time the President or chancellors have spoken with one voice about these issue. Do Palestinian students and academics not matter in any meaningful way?

Finally, in your third paragraph you argue that “an academic boycott goes against the spirit of the University of California, which has consistently championed open discourse and encouraged collaboration with scholars and peers from international institutions of higher education.” This too is highly inaccurate. The University of California has never made an official pronouncement condemning or even calling attention to the systematic violations of Palestinian rights to education (never mind all the other even more basic violations they are subject to). How is engaging in long-term collaborations worth untold millions of dollars with a country engaged in an illegal occupation while remaining utterly silent about its actions against the occupied population in any way equatable to a “championing of open discourse and collaboration” in a fair and balanced manner? Of course, it is not.

You conclude you letter by “urg[ing] Association [of American Anthropologists] members to consider the boycott’s potentially harmful impacts and oppose this resolution.” Again, you make no mention of the harsh conditions faced by Palestinians as part of their daily existence attempting to participate in their education system. No discussion or even recognition of the incredibly “harmful impact” that clearly exists because of Israel’s actions, and nothing that suggests you are in any way interested in offering a balanced view that actually takes into consideration the very real and substantial issues that the call for a boycott is intended to raise. Let’s be clear: the merits of the BDS strategies certainly warrant discussion and debate. But this letter engages in neither; choosing instead to make what are essentially partisan political pronouncements based on assumptions that do not bear even the slightest scrutiny.

President Napolitano, you have stated that “UC is the gold standard. Together, we must ensure that this standard is upheld.” This letter violates the spirit and letter of this pledge, as it is ethically and empirically flawed, engaging in a misleading attack on a specific strategy of non-violent resistance that has a long history of successful deployment by oppressed peoples around the world (including African Americans), misrepresenting the opinions of the UC community, of the AAA, and ignoring the large-scale injustices suffered by the people on whose behalf the BDS movement is acting. All of this done on UC letterhead acting in your official capacities as the leadership of the University. I urge you publicly to withdraw your ill-conceived attempt to interfere in the democratic deliberations of a learned society and consider how the leadership of UC can better reflect, or at least not interfere with, the diverse opinions of our community, while using the immense power of the University to help advocate both for those suffering and fighting against injustice and oppression, not just in Israel/Palestine, but globally.