Tag Archives: Paisley Currah

They All Fall Down: “Progressives” Back off From Their Demands to Poli Sci

6 Feb

Now that the mayor, the New York Times, and just about everyone else have come down hard on all the government officials and politicians who tried to force my department to withdraw its co-sponsorship of the BDS panel, the “progressive” politicians have issued a second letter (their first is here) to Brooklyn College President Karen Gould, in which they backpedal, backpedal, backpedal pull back from their earlier position. No longer, it seems, must we “balance” this panel or withdraw our co-sponsorship.

That it took a billionaire mayor to explain these simple matters to our progressive leaders is, well, what can one say? This entire episode has been an instructive example in courage and cowardice, shame and shamelessness. Much congratulations go to the mayor, to President Gould, to the students who organized this panel, and above all to my colleagues in political science, who stood absolutely firm on principle throughout an extraordinarily difficult time, and to our chair Paisley Currah, who led us throughout it all.

Here is the progressive politicians’ letter [pdf].

Text of letter

President Karen L. Gould
Brooklyn College
2900 Bedford Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11210
Dear President Gould:

We are writing to follow up on our letter to you of January 31, 2012, regarding the “BDS Movement Against Israel” event taking place tomorrow at Brooklyn College. We want to thank you for your leadership on this issue.

In our letter, we expressed concern that the Political Science Department’s co-sponsorship of this student-organized event suggested that it was an official position of the college, and encouraged action to make a more diverse range of views heard on this issue.

Equally, although it has been obscured in some media accounts, in our letter, we stood strongly for academic freedom for students and academics. We affirmed the right of students to sponsor the event. We did not request its cancellation. We did not, and would not, threaten the funding of Brooklyn College. We will continue to oppose efforts that would seek to undermine the free and open debate of critical issues.

We are grateful that the following steps have now been taken:

  • You affirmed the strong traditions of free expression at Brooklyn College, making clear that departmental co-sponsorship of a student-organized event does not imply endorsement of that event, and that “Brooklyn College does not endorse the views of the speakers visiting our campus next week, just as it has not endorsed those of previous visitors to our campus with opposing views. We do, however, uphold their right to speak, and the rights of our students and faculty to attend, listen, and fully debate.” At the same time, you encouraged “students and faculty to explore these issues from multiple viewpoints and in a variety of forums so that no single perspective serves as the sole source of information or basis for consideration.” This is the model of academic freedom and inclusive dialogue that we were seeking to encourage, and that fact been lost in too much of the media coverage on the issue.
  • In your letter to Brooklyn College Hillel, you made clear that Brooklyn College “does not endorse the BDS movement nor support its call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel,” affirmed the college’s “proud history of engagement with Israel and Israeli universities,” and that you “deeply value our Israeli partners and would not endorse any action that would imperil the State of Israel or its citizens.”
  • The Political Science Department has put in writing its policy for considering co-sponsorship of student-organized events, making clear that requests from “any groups, departments or programs organizing lectures or events representing any point of view … will be given equal consideration.” However, as has been clear in this instance, the departmental practice of co-sponsorship of specifically student-organized events has caused real confusion among students regarding intent and endorsement of views (as evidenced by Student Body (CLAS) President Abraham Esses’ “Open Letter” in this regard). We, therefore, believe that the policy would be strengthened greatly by the explicit inclusion of language that you and the Department have used on this case – that sponsorship does not imply endorsement.
  • Planning has begun for additional event(s) at Brooklyn College’s Wolfe Institute on the Humanities that will bring a range of additional viewpoints on these issues to campus in the coming months. While these are not required as a matter of free expression, we believe that they will help contribute to the cause of understanding and dialogue. We hope the Political Science Department will follow its newly codified policy and co-sponsor these events as well.

As we stated in our letter, we are strongly opposed to BDS. We continue to believe that “the BDS movement is a wrongheaded and destructive one, and an obstacle to our collective hope for a peaceful two-state solution. These simplistic and one-sided approaches do a disservice to the cause of peace and stability by unfairly placing blame entirely on one side, and by attempting to delegitimize one party on the world stage, and will do nothing to bring either party back to earnest negotiations or enhance a better understand of complexity of this conflict.”
Others disagree, of course, and we will fight for their right to do so. But we will also continue to argue strongly against them. We note, for example, that many advocates of the BDS movement have called for a boycott of Israeli scholars and institutions, which would, of course, deny them their academic and free speech rights. This hypocritical position should not undermine our commitment to the fundamental values of a free society, but it speaks to the nature of the BDS movement.

In closing, we share your goal that Brooklyn College “should be a place free from hate; one where diverse points of view, on even the most controversial topics, may be debated without intimidation or fear of reprisal.”
Again, thank you for your leadership, dialogue, and action on this matter.

Jerrold Nadler

Brad Lander

Christine C. Quinn

John Liu

Bill de Blasio

Marty Markowitz

Yvette D. Clarke

Nydia Velazquez

Hakeem Jeffries

Kevin Parker

Daniel Squadron

Rhoda Jacobs

Karim Camara

Joan Millman

Walter Mosley

Letitia James

Stephen Levin

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.


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