Tag Archives: Lewis Fidler

Brooklyn BDS Saga Continues: NYC Councilman Lewis Fidler Demands Poli Sci Hire Pro-Israel Faculty

7 May

New York City Councilman Lewis Fidler, the assistant majority leader who led the charge against my department’s co-sponsorship of a Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) forum in February, is back in the saddle.

This time, according to The Jewish Week, he—and four other members of City Council—are demanding that the CUNY administration

develop a plan to “level the playing field” at Brooklyn’s political science department by endowing “a chair in the department for a visiting professor from Israel who reflects a more sympathetic view” about the country’s future.

Hardcore supporters of the State of Israel, off and on campus, have been gunning for my department for some time. Last month, The Jewish Week reported that the campus Hillel group and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York had teamed up to issue a statement claiming that

…the [BDS] forum also raised other issues that need to be addressed by the college’s administration, including the “eagerness of the Political Science Department to take positions that are politically-oriented,” the department’s hiring practices and a perception on the part of Jewish students that the faculty is “woefully biased” against Israel.

So now we have Fidler and four other officials of the state trying to make good on that promise by having the government impose a state-approved litmus test about who can and cannot get hired at CUNY.

Fidler, you’ll recall, is not shy about using state power to impose his views on what gets said on college campuses. Not only did he oppose the department’s co-sponsorship of the BDS forum, but he threatened to withhold government money from CUNY if it didn’t comply with his ideological demands. As he wrote to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould in late January:

A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State and City of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City—many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program—want their tax money to be spent on.

We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong. So, should this event occur, we must strongly oppose it and ask you to reconsider any official support or sponsorship.

Fidler lost that round soundly. Given that he’s entering this one with even fewer allies, I assume he’ll lose this one too.  But who knows?

Update (May 7, 8:30 am)

Commenter Patrick Sullivan just brought this article to my attention. At a community forum over the weekend, mayoral candidates were grilled about their positions on the Brooklyn College BDS panel controversy:

Debate over the much-talked about Brooklyn College panel on the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel broke out in response to an audience question. Save for Liu, the top candidates doubled-down on their positions. “If you look at Brooklyn College, that wasn’t a question of freedom of speech, it was a question of should the college Political Science department be sponsoring a forum that, in that case, that pushed hate,” said Thompson, who said that both sides should have been represented at the panel that featured Omar Barghouti and Judith Butler, two proponents of BDS. Thompson spoke out against the BDS panel before it occurred alongside Dov Hikind, a right-wing (though a Democrat) pusher of Islamophobia linked to Jewish extremist groups. Thompson was booed at the forum for the answer, and it prompted a rejoinder from Albanese.

“What you don’t want is telling academics what should be taught, be said on a campus. I believe in more speech,” said Albanese. After De Blasio agreed with Thompson–and said that public colleges in particular should provide all viewpoints–Albanese said, “let me say this…Bill was just pandering.” After Albanese’s remarks, Thompson added, “if the Political Science Department is sponsoring the Klan, I want to have both sides put forward. That’s all I said.”

Thompson, De Blasio, Quinn and Liu signed a letter organized by Congressman Jerry Nadler that spoke out against BDS and said that they were “concerned that an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue…By excluding alternative positions from an event they are sponsoring, the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate.” A second letter from the same group backtracked slightly.

At the forum, Liu backtracked further on his actions in the lead-up to the BDS panel and noted that the Political Science Department routinely sponsors a variety of events, which garnered applause. “It was a very quick letter, we were given very short time to do it, something that in hindsight I shouldn’t have signed, and that’s why we had the second letter to clarify our position.”

When Quinn doubled-down on her position and said that it was important to have “both sides” of the debate on BDS at the event, the crowd booed once again.

Israeli Ambassador: I Balance Myself

12 Feb

Just some odds and ends from the Brooklyn College BDS controversy.

1. I did a Bloggingheads show with Sarah Posner.  This is just a clip where I talk about my own confrontation with the Israel-Palestine question in college and how that helps me think about education more generally. But you can also watch the whole thing if you like.

2. I never posted the follow-up letter [pdf] that Gale Brewer, one of the members of the City Council who signed that Fidler letter and then jumped ship, sent to President Gould.

3.  The Center for Constitutional Rights and the National Lawyers Guild teamed up to write a letter [pdf] to all the members of City Council who signed the Fidler letter. It helpfully gets into the case law around this issue.

4. The NYCLU sent its own letter to Lewis Fidler [pdf]. In addition to claiming that Fidler’s letter “turns the First Amendment on its head,” it discusses some of the thornier issues surrounding the question of whether universities or academic departments can take political stands on the issues of the day:

There is a longstanding debate in academic circles regarding the question as to whether and when an academic institution should refrain from taking ideological positions and abstain from, using its corporate form, to speak out on the issues of the day. A committee at the University of Chicago, headed by Harry Kalven, Jr., issued a widely circulated report in 1967 urging that the University not engage in “political and social action.” The committee reasoned that the proper role of a university is to provide a neutral forum for the free exchange of ideas and that when it abandons its neutrality “it does so at the price of censuring any minority who do not agree with the view adopted.” The merits of the Kalven report have been much debated at the University of Chicago and elsewhere over the years. The question re-surfaced when the Sullivan Principles were proposed in opposition South African apartheid and universities were urged to endorse those principles and many of them did. It was addressed and criticized at the University of Chicago only last year. The Chicago Maroon, March 2, 2012. Indeed, even if the Kalven position were to be adopted, it is unclear whether, as a matter of policy, such a position should be limited to the role of a college or the university or whether it should be extended to smaller units within the academic institution. Restated, if a university elects to refrain from “political and social action” should its academic departments adopt a similar position of restraint? Some might say yes. But, if individual scholars can take positions on the issues of the day, as surely they are entitled to do, why can these scholars not associate with other academics and speak out collectively or in the name of an academic department, recognizing that there may well be members of the department who dissent from the departmental viewpoint?

These are interesting questions that are best left to be resolved by the individual academic institutions and entities. For academic freedom is best protected by allowing academic institutions to engage in self-governance and by preventing the political branches of government from intruding into academic decision-making. One of the earliest lessons of academic freedom is that legislative bodies must refrain from using the power of the purse to dictate the content of the academic enterprise. Arthur Lovejoy, one of the principal architects of the concept of academic freedom in this country, observed that “the distinctive social function of the scholar’s trade cannot be fulfilled if those who pay the piper were permitted to call the tune.”

4. Stanley Fish has a post about the controversy at the Times.

5. Last night, Columbia Law School sponsored a talk by Ron Prosor, the Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations. Since I didn’t hear a peep about this from Alan Dershowitz, the City Council, or any of the other critics of the Brooklyn College poli sci department, I can only assume the ambassador balanced himself.

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

NYC Council Threatens to Withdraw $ if Poli Sci Doesn’t Withdraw Cosponsorship

3 Feb

We have the document. Lewis Fidler, Assistant Majority Leader of the NYC Council, and several other members of the City Council, write in a letter to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould that if the BDS event is not canceled—or the political science department’s co-sponsorship of it is not withdrawn—the City Council will withdraw its financial support from the College and/or CUNY. The letter is here.

An excerpt:

A significant portion of the funding for CUNY schools comes directly from the tax dollars of the people of the State and City of New York. Every year, we legislators are asked for additional funding to support programs and initiatives at these schools and we fight hard to secure those funds. Every one of those dollars given to CUNY, and Brooklyn College, means one less dollar going to some other worthy purpose. We do not believe this program is what the taxpayers of our City—many of who would feel targeted and demonized by this program—want their tax money to be spent on.

We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong. So, should this event occur, we must strongly oppose it and ask you to reconsider any official support or sponsorship.

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