Tag Archives: Letitia James

A Sinking Ship? 2 politicians jump, there may be a 3rd.

5 Feb

More news on the Brooklyn/BDS controversy:

1.Yet another signatory to the Lewis Fidler letter, which threatened to punish CUNY by withholding funds, has rescinded his signature.

Today on Twitter, City Councilman Stephen Levin announced:

With Letitia James, two out of the 10 signatories have now removed themselves from the Fidler letter.

2.  I have it on a very good source that yet another member of the New York City Council who signed the letter is going to make a public statement tomorrow, distancing him/herself from its contents. Am not at liberty to say who. But that would make 3 out of 10.

3. My chair, Paisley Currah, has written a very powerful piece for The Chronicle Review, explaining his position on the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS event. In addition to revealing some details that folks don’t know or have ignored, he makes an important point about the value—and limits—of the idea of balance and debate as the only model of learning and discussion:

Debates have their place, but thoroughly understanding an argument requires sustained and concentrated attention. Focusing on one idea at a time does not entail the suppression of opposing ideas. It’s a very limited vision of education to imagine that it should take the form of a tennis match, with ideas truncated into easily digestible sound bites.

4. Katha Pollitt has a characteristically crisp evisceration of the balance=thought position:

Dear “progressive elected officials and leaders,” I have spoken on dozens of panels at assorted campuses round the land. Sometimes these were politically mixed events and sometimes all the speakers shared a common perspective. Sometimes it was even just me up there! What is wrong with that? Surely you don’t think the school should arrange for someone from the Eagle Forum to share the platform with me when I speak about feminism, or bring on a priest and a rabbi to put in a word for God when I speak about atheism? On every campus, dozens of panels and lectures take place every week, hosted by student groups, academic departments and programs, endowed lecture series and so on. If over the course of a year every side gets its turn, why isn’t that good enough?

5. The Center for Constitutional Rights has written a lengthy, substantive letter to President Gould on this issue; it’s got some excellent context and cases.

6. This is from a few days ago, but Scott Lemieux does a hilarious send-up of the “balance” argument.

The threats to Brooklyn College’s funding over their decision to invite a world-class scholar to discuss issues of major import, as I have noted, seem to involve some ad hoc principle about “balance” that is a “principle” in the same sense as the equal protection holding in Bush v. Gore.

But, at any rate, let’s pretend that this is a serious argument for a second. I have an example of this new principle being violated! Brooklyn College President Karen Gould:

“You have asked that I state unequivocally the college’s position on the BDS movement, and I have no hesitation in doing so. As president of Brooklyn College, I can assure you that our college does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel, nor do I personally.”

Personally, I find this statement unobjectionable. If one were to take the newly minted Sacred Principles of Academic Balance being used to attack academic freedom at CUNY, however, Gould should be robustly criticized for expressing a view on a controversial issue on behalf of the college. Is she now obligated to issue another press release from a supporter of BDS for the sake of balance? I find these new Sacred Principles very confusing.

6. Barbara Bowen, the president of my union, which represents 25,000 professors and staff at CUNY, issued a tough call to the “progressive” politicians who asked the president to have our department withdraw its co-sponsorship: “We call on you immediately to withdraw the demands of your letter and to communicate to the Brooklyn College community your support for President Gould’s position.”

7. Inside Higher Ed has a thorough report on the controversy.

8. Andrew Sullivan had a nice link to this blog, which he quoted at length. The title of his post: “The Self-Appointed Policemen of the Israel Debate, Ctd”.

9. There are multiple petitions to sign. Make sure to sign this one, which began circulating two days ago and already has over 2000 signatures, and this one, just out from the Nation.

10. Make sure to check out this post about the massive hypocrisy of Christine Quinn.

11. It’s now been four days since my department posted our call for requests to co-sponsor other panels, representing any and all points of view. Despite the claim that we’re shutting our doors to views we don’t like, we still haven’t gotten a single request for co-sponsorship. I’m beginning to wonder whether our critics really care about balance or presenting opposing views after all.

One politician doubles down, one politician backs down, and one student stands up

5 Feb

So much has happened today it’s hard to keep up.  So a quick round-up of the news (and some items from yesterday).

1. The major development of the day is that City Councilwoman Letitia James has publicly retracted her signature to that Fidler letter, which threatens to cut off funding to Brooklyn College and CUNY, a point Fidler doubled down on in an interview tonight.

2. This morning, Brooklyn College President Karen Gould delivered a powerful defense of our department and of academic freedom.

3. That defense has now been endorsed by the New York Times. In a strong editorial, the Times writes:

We do, however, strongly defend the decision by Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to proceed with the event, despite withering criticism by opponents and threats by at least 10 City Council members to cut city funding for the college. Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.

The sad truth is that there is more honest discussion about American-Israeli policy in Israel than in this country. Too often in the United States, supporting Israel has come to mean meeting narrow ideological litmus tests.

4.  This morning, Glenn Greenwald made the strongest argument for why this has become a classic showdown between the state and the freedom to propound heterodox and alternative views. We are now, as Glenn reminds us, reprising the battle between Guiliani and the Brooklyn Museum. Only it’s the City Council and Brooklyn College. And as I asked earlier in the day: Where does Mike Bloomberg stand on this? This article in the Forward also focuses us on the question of what will the state do.

5. My colleague Louis Fishman in the history department, who’s a specialist in the history of the Middle East, wrote a terrific post today. You should read it.

6. The story has made its way into the Los Angeles Times, SalonDaily Beast (again), and Huffington Post, among other places.

7. One small point that has gotten very little attention in all this brouhaha. Our department wrote a letter to our students over the weekend (which we also issued as a public statement). We reiterated our long-standing policy of entertaining requests for co-sponsorship from any and all student groups, departments, and programs, but we also made a point of noting that “since this controversy broke, no group has contacted the political science chair requesting the department’s co-sponsorship of a specific event or actual speaker representing alternative or opposing views.” To date, we still not have received any such request.

8. There is a petition out there, which has garnered more than 1500 signatures in less than 24 hours. Please sign and circulate it; there is a plan, I’m told, to present it at some point later this week.

9. I don’t have phone numbers or contacts, but I urge you to find them and call/email the city councilors on this letter, sans Letitia James, who are standing by their threat to de-fund CUNY if Brooklyn College does not meet their demands that we speak only the words they want spoken. I also urge you to contact any of the progressive officials who signed off on this letter, particularly the members of Congress—sans Nadler; he’s hopeless—and Bill de Blasio and Brad Lander.

10. If you haven’t had a chance yet to watch Chris Hayes’s magnificent summation of everything that’s at stake in this controversy, well, watch it. Here.

11. And now my favorite moment in this whole controversy. Zujaja Tauqeer, a former student in my modern political thought class and now a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, wrote a terrific letter to President Gould, laying out her position on this controversy. No matter how difficult things can get at Brooklyn College and at CUNY, it is students like Zujaja who remind me of what I’m doing and why I am doing it. She gets the last word.

Dear President Gould,

I hope this letter finds you well. As a Brooklyn College alumnus, a Rhodes Scholar, and the commencement speaker and class representative for the 2011 graduating class, I urge you to continue upholding the principles of academic freedom and to allow the Political Science Department to co-sponsor, as originally planned, the panel discussion on the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that has been scheduled to take place at BC.

As you and Provost Tramontano are aware, I know all too well how fragile freedom of speech can be. As a beneficiary of political asylum by the US, I am horrified to see the kinds of perverse tactics used to marginalize minority communities and viewpoints in less developed countries being introduced in an American public educational institution for the express purpose of stifling the freedom of speech, and therefore the freedom of conscience, of students and faculty. Elected officials and trustees who hold the public trust are now trying to force you to join them in betraying that very trust. They are seeking to deprive the Political Science Department of its right—and responsibility—to sponsor discussions that may conflict with the convictions of those in a position of power.

As a Rhodes Scholar selected from Brooklyn College, I have tried my utmost to represent my alma mater as a progressive institution whose commitment to freedom and toleration vindicate the sacrifices students and alumni like myself have made to pursue a liberal arts education here. Though in the past BC has stumbled in its effort to preserve civil liberties on campus, I am confident that as president you will capably show that academic freedom, so crucial to critical scholarship and democratic citizenship, is non-negotiable.

I recall at this time the motto of our school—nil sine magno labore. We cannot ensure for future students and faculty the freedoms promised to them as citizens of this country if we as an institution back down from the effort needed to uphold those very freedoms now when they are threatened by vested interests. If I can support you in any way in helping to make this case to my fellow alumni, our elected officials, and our donors, please do not hesitate to call upon me.

Sincerely,

Zujaja Tauqeer ‘11

The Tide Turns: Letitia James Backs Off From Threats to CUNY

4 Feb

New York City Councilwoman Letitia James officially announced today that she has withdrawn her signature from that letter sent from Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler threatening Brooklyn College and CUNY with a lost of funding if the BDS event goes forward with the political science department’s co-sponsorship. On Twitter today, she said the following:

  1. @peterrothberg I hear your concern. While I have serious concerns about this event, I don’t think it would be appropriate for the Council…
  2. @peterrothberg to use CUNY budget to influence what issues are discussed on campus & what groups are invited. I will remove myself from ltr.
  3. Hi @HuffPostNY! I addressed BC ltr earlier today- I removed my name. Welcome to call my office at 212-788-7081 to discuss my actual opinion.

 

This statement is particularly important as James is running for New York City Public Advocate. Standing up for academic freedom is not only principled; it may also be politic.

Update (8:40 pm)

Doug Henwood posts a lengthier statement from James at his FB page. It reads thus:

I am writing to respond to the emails and communications I’ve received in the last 24 hours concerning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and the upcoming panel discussion at CUNY’s Brooklyn College.

I have serious concerns about the language some in the BDS movement use. That said, I support the principle of academic freedom, and further recognize that Brooklyn College Political Science Department’s co-sponsorship does not mean the school endorses the views that may be expressed at the forum.

Furthermore, while I would not characterize the referenced letter as a fiscal ‘threat’, I agree that it would be inappropriate to even imply that the Council use their power over CUNY’s budget to influence what issues are discussed on campus, or what groups are invited to engage in dialogue. Because I did not want to be misunderstood in my position, I removed myself from the letter.

I have always strived to be communicative to my constituents— as well as anyone who contacts my office with a concern— and I hope that I have addressed your concerns. Please contact my office at (212) 788-7081 if you have any further questions.

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