A Palestinian Exception…at Brooklyn College

Next week, I’m proud to announce, the political science department at Brooklyn College, of which I am chair, will be co-sponsoring two events.

The first, which is being put on by the Wolfe Institute of the Humanities at Brooklyn College, is a talk by Nation columnist, poet, and essayist Katha Pollitt. Katha has just published a book called Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, and that is the title of the talk she will be giving next Tuesday, November 18, at 2:25 (yes, 2:25), in Woody Tanger Auditorium at Brooklyn College.

The second, which is being put on by the Students for Justice in Palestine at Brooklyn College, is a conversation between Steven Salaita, who needs no introduction on this blog, and Columbia Law Professor Katharine Franke, who was so instrumental in his defense this past summer. I will be moderating the conversation. It will be held next Thursday, November 20, at 5:30 in the Gold Room of the Student Center at Brooklyn College. You have to register in advance for the event. Please do so now. While the seats for non-BC students are now full, there is a waiting list, and it’s often not hard to get off the waiting list, since not everyone shows up. The students are also negotiating with the administration to get more seats for members of the community. So sign up for the wait list and keep checking back in.

Now all this talk of registration and wait lists and such should instantly alert you to the strange way that a student event around Palestine is treated at Brooklyn College. In Katha’s case, anyone from the college or community can just show up; in the Salaita case, you have to register in advance, and if history is any guide, pass through an elaborate set of security checkpoints just to get in.

In fairness to Brooklyn College, I’m told that this is how all student events are treated. But if we’re honest for a second, it’s fairly clear that all these procedures were created in the wake of the BDS controversy of February 2013. And they’ve proven to be especially onerous for the Students for Justice in Palestine. I myself had to intervene in this case—as a member of the faculty—with a high-level official in the administration in order to move the process along; it’s that cumbersome and difficult.

What’s more, during the week of November 17, Steven Salaita will be speaking at eight colleges and universities in the area: Rutgers Newark, Rutgers New Brunswick, Princeton, NYU, Columbia, the New School, the College of Staten Island (CUNY), and Brooklyn College. Only at Brooklyn College will attendees have to go through this baroque set of checkpoints and procedures. How ironic that private universities like NYU and Princeton and Columbia are more welcoming of the public than Brooklyn College.

While I’m excited that our department is co-sponsoring both events, I would be less than honest if I didn’t express a certain disappointment with my colleagues in other departments. The only departments co-sponsoring both events are the departments of sociology, political science, and secondary education, as well as the Shirley Chisholm Project. Many others were asked to co-sponsor the Salaita event, but they refused.

Now, I should make clear that every department is entitled to co-sponsor or organize whatever events it chooses to co-sponsor. My department has an especially tolerant policy of co-sponsorship; not all departments do. And just as I objected when political science was lambasted for co-sponsoring the BDS event, I would not want departments to be pilloried for refusing to co-sponsor the Salaita event. It’s their right to decide; I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But while acknowledging and affirming that right, I can’t help noticing that some departments are perfectly happy to co-sponsor the Katha Pollitt talk, but won’t get near the Salaita event with a ten-foot pole. And while these departments invoke two arguments for steering clear of a Salaita-type event—the event is “one-sided,” and its content has nothing to do with the particular mission of the department—they seem willing to dispense with these arguments when it comes to Katha Pollitt’s talk. Even though abortion rights has nothing to do with the missions of some of these department, and her talk is so one-sided that it’s called “pro.”

It doesn’t seem to occur to my liberal colleagues at Brooklyn College that were they a professor in Alabama or Mississippi, they would have to be just as careful around a talk by Katha Pollitt as they are at Brooklyn College around an event focused on Palestinians. Abortion is a no-brainer here; there it’s as controversial as Israel/Palestine is here. It’s the mere happenstance of living in New York that leads them to push in one instance, and pull in another.

And here’s why that’s a problem. A university is not supposed to reflect the conventional wisdom of its environs. It’s supposed to challenge that conventional wisdom. It’s all too easy in progressive (except for Palestine) Brooklyn to co-sponsor a talk in defense of abortion rights. But the real guts of academic freedom is to defend it when it matters, when it’s most on the edge, pushing the boundaries of conventional wisdom. Not because edginess is a value unto itself, but because it’s often at the edges where a society’s deepest, most difficult, issues lie, where its deepest and most difficult issues are repressed. The job of the heresy hunters is to keep those issues at the edge, repressed; the job of intellectuals and academics (or so we like to tell ourselves) is to force them into the center, into the light.

In the past at Brooklyn College, our problem has been donors and alums and politicians. And that’s the way we on the faculty like it: they’re easy targets. But that’s not the case this time around. The administration has worked hard on behalf of the students; the donors and alums and politicians have been silent. The only thing standing in the way of a robust conversation is…us.

Update (November 12, 10:30 AM)

The philosophy department voted yesterday to co-sponsor the Salaita event! Good news. When we had the BDS event at Brooklyn College, my department was the only co-sponsor. Now four departments are co-sponsoring. Slow boring of hard boards.

12 Comments

  1. Jessica A Bruno (waybeyondfedup) November 11, 2014 at 9:55 pm | #
  2. Bill Michtom November 11, 2014 at 10:46 pm | #

    Thanks, Cory, for your commitment to intellectual/academic freedom and, of course, to the cause of Palestinian freedom.

  3. Rosalind Petchesky November 12, 2014 at 9:40 am | #

    Bravo again, Corey! I’ll send this to all my contacts in JVP, cuny4palestine and our colleagues in Pol Sci at CUNY. Working on these issues in NYC really does feel like being in the belly of the beast, so your principled stance turns out to be quite courageous as well as necessary at this moment. See you on Nov. 20. Ros

  4. Barbara Winslow November 12, 2014 at 11:03 am | #

    The Secondary Education Department (SEED) at Brooklyn College voted to co sponsor the BDS event. Somehow the vote did not get reported to Political Science.

    My department SEED decided to develop criteria for sponsoring other departmental requests for cosponsorship.

  5. Paul Halsall November 12, 2014 at 11:51 am | #

    I found this article a bit odd.

    This issue of whether the Political Science Dept sponsor a talk that opposed abortion would seem to be more the issue in terms of free speech.

    • Corey Robin November 12, 2014 at 11:58 am | #

      Since we have an explicit policy in political science of co-sponsoring talks of any and all viewpoints — I even linked to the policy in the post — I’m not at all clear what your point is. And insofar as I am clear on it, it’s wrong.

  6. xenon2 November 12, 2014 at 6:39 pm | #

    Will it be live-streamed or at least taped, available to the internet?

    • Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant November 14, 2014 at 8:43 am | #

      Great idea! I’d love to go but my family is the midst of a move and the timing is not good. I understand that there may be a need for BC’s poli-sci to sustain some proprietory interest in the hosting of such events (even the good guys have to show boffo box office once in a while) it’d be really great for those of us who cannot make it to at least see some highlights, if not a whole presentation, made available online.

  7. Edward November 13, 2014 at 10:49 am | #

    This makes an interesting contrast to the request of a feminist, rejected by a college, that guns be barred from her talk critiquing video games, after she received a death threat. Maybe she should have claimed ISIS made the threat and then seen how the college responded.

    • Phil Perspective November 13, 2014 at 1:01 pm | #

      Maybe she should have claimed ISIS made the threat and then seen how the college responded.

      Doubt it would have made a difference. Why? Because of the way their mind works. “You should have been armed,” they’d likely say. Stuff like that.

      • Edward November 14, 2014 at 2:49 pm | #

        This is the country that shut down Boston for three days to hunt the Boston marathon bomber suspects. Both political parties are invested in seeming tough against ISIS. I think there would have been a huge uproar if someone could plausibly claim ISIS planned to attack them here in the U.S. Fox news would love it.

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