CUNY and NYS hypocrisy on academic freedom: okay to boycott North Carolina and Mississippi, but not Israel

The graduate students at CUNY voted today to support the call for an academic boycott of Israel. Good for them.

The vote was greeted with unsurprising opposition from the CUNY Graduate Center administration and from CUNY Chancellor James Milliken.

The Graduate Center stressed in a public statement that the vote is “not a resolution supported by the GC nor the university as a whole” and that the center is “opposed to academic boycotts which “directly violate academic freedom.”

“We are disappointed by this vote from one student group,” a statement from CUNY’s Chancellor James B. Milliken read, “but it will not change CUNY’s position.”

In the lead up to the vote, Milliken already made clear that he opposed the doctoral students’ endorsement of BDS.

“Other CUNY leaders and I have consistently and publicly opposed a boycott of Israel institutions of higher education,” Milliken wrote in a letter to the Forward.

Milliken also suggested that the student government’s endorsement would not have bearing on CUNY policy.

“At the end of the day,” he wrote, this is a call to action, but “a decision on this matter is the province of the CUNY Board of Trustees.”

Unsurprising, yet not without irony.

For in the very week that the Graduate Center and the chancellor were making these august pronouncements on behalf of academic freedom, Chancellor Milliken’s top lawyer was sending out a memo to all college presidents (including the president of the Graduate Center), provosts (including the provost of the Graduate Center) and other related financial officials, announcing that CUNY would be strictly enforcing Governor Cuomo’s ban on all non-essential travel of New York State employees to North Carolina and Mississippi. This ban is in response to both states’ passage of laws allowing discrimination against gays, lesbians, and transgender individuals.

If you think this ban has no impact on academic exchange, on our ability to interact with scholars in North Carolina and Mississippi, or indeed scholars from across the nation, or our ability to carry on our basic research, think again.

Should I, as a CUNY professor, wish to attend a conference or in North Carolina or do research in Mississippi, I would not be eligible to use any university funds to do so. Nor would I be allowed to use external or union grants to pay for these trips if—as is almost always the case with university faculty and such grants—these grants are administered through CUNY.

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As any professor will tell you, without the university funding these trips or with the university preventing us from using our grants to fund these trips, we simply can’t do them.

CUNY’s announcement of this travel ban also reveals how empty Milliken’s claim is about how boycott decisions are “the province” of the Board of Trustees. As we can see here, the governor proposes and the governor disposes.

For the record, I have no problem with either this travel ban or CUNY’s decision to enforce it. I think it is a salutary use of state power and I hope it brings about the desired change.

But I wish people like Chancellor Milliken—and all the opponents of BDS at CUNY and elsewhere—would get off their high horse about the grave threat to academic freedom that would come from an academic boycott of Israel—which would not, unlike these North Carolina and Mississippi boycotts, be enforced through the state but would instead be entirely voluntary, the actions of both individuals and voluntarily associated collectives of individuals—and instead acknowledge that these are all legitimate ways of promoting the human rights and dignity, and indeed the academic freedom, of oppressed minorities and subjugated populations everywhere.


  1. Dan Mandell April 15, 2016 at 11:34 pm | #

    Because it’s really important when you dislike a particular government’s policies to target one of the main institutions in the country opposing those policies. Like boycotting UC Berkeley during the late 1960s in order to get the U.S. to withdraw from Vietnam.

    • Deborah April 16, 2016 at 10:10 am | #

      Except Israeli academic institutions do not oppose those policies.

      • Dan Mandell April 16, 2016 at 11:10 am | #

        So all the efforts by right-wing politicians to target various academics, departments, and universities are chopped liver? The close ties between various professors and organizations like Peace Now? The many political science, sociology, anthropology, and history works written by Israel academics that analyze and criticize social and cultural tendencies and past and present government policies and actions? Marginalizing Israeli academics is a great gift to Netanyahu.

        • Bill Michtom April 16, 2016 at 12:41 pm | #

          Were you opposed to the boycott of South Africa on the same grounds?

          • Dan Mandell April 16, 2016 at 4:37 pm | #

            The two situations are very different, as are the goals of BDS and the South African boycott. There’s a reason why many who support for a boycott of products from West Bank settlements–including many Israeli academics and artists–oppose BDS.

          • Bill Michtom April 17, 2016 at 7:27 pm | #

            You misrepresent Chomsky’s criticisms. He is not against BDS. He thinks it needs expanded tactics and strategy: “educational efforts [must] reach the point of laying much more groundwork in the public understanding for them, as was done in the case of South Africa.”

            Then you say “There’s a reason why many who support for a boycott of products from West Bank settlements–including many Israeli academics and artists–oppose BDS.” Small detail, they’re SUPPORTING boycott while (according to you) not going along with D & S. Please provide examples of the “many academics and artists” who are in this group.

          • Dan Mandell April 16, 2016 at 5:39 pm | #

            Noam Chomsky highlighted specific differences and the flaws with BDS in this NATION article:

  2. Rosalind Petchesky April 16, 2016 at 12:44 pm | #

    Bravo Corey! I wish you’d been in the room to hear the eloquent testimonies of our graduate students who have worked for–and now succeeded in securing–this resolution in the DSC. The statements of your commenters above are confused. While individual scholars at some israeli universities have opposed their government’s brutal and discriminatory policies against Palestinians, many have been punished or even fired for doing so; the institutions themselves–which are the target of the boycott, NOT individuals–have been entirely complicit in supporting (or not opposing) the occupation and providing the major base for military research, development of military hardware, surveillance technologies and strategies, sinecures for military officers (like David Petraeus at CUNY), and all the rest. And some of this comes back to us at CUNY in the form of Israeli-trained NYPD forces conducting surveillance and even spying on our students, particularly at Brooklyn College. So yes, an academic boycott is perhaps the best way we can support opposition voices within Israeli universities and above all the Palestinian professors and students whose academic freedom, physical mobility and security are continually stymied by Israel’s official policies.

  3. Roberto Hollin April 17, 2016 at 2:18 am | #

    Both BDS and the North Carolina and Mississippi boycotts are idiotic. No way to defeat an enemy. You have to subvert the population that is its social base and staying away and avoiding contact won’t help change hearts and minds.

  4. Kevin Garry April 17, 2016 at 10:59 pm | #

    BDS is “idiotic?” Different from the South African boycott? Not if one listens to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and most South Africans. What incredibly lame sophistry.

  5. Roberto Hollin April 18, 2016 at 4:24 pm | #

    Apartheid was overthrown in South Africa from the inside, through mass actions, including underground union organizing and strikes, led by a leadership of the caliber of the ANC, including Mandela and the other imprisoned leaders, COSATU and others, which all made untenable the enforcement of apartheid laws; and from the outside via the defeat of South African troops by Cuban and Angolan troops in Angola and Namibia. All this convinced the US, Britain and other powers that it was time to let go of support for the South African government. The boycott campaign was important but in the end played a pretty minor role. To hear BDS activists today, you’d think that South African working people had nothing to do whatsoever with their own liberation from that oppressive system.

    A leadership such as the ANC of the time, that reached out to all South Africans, regardless of race, is still very much lacking in Palestine and Israel. And what is needed is a movement that encompasses all: Palestinians, Jews, and other immigrants, legal or undocumented or temporary guest workers. How to get there is the question.

    • Harold April 19, 2016 at 1:17 pm | #

      I fail to see how isolating an intransigent entity via economic and academic boycotts is not an effective strategy. It’s sending the message that you disagree strongly with their actions in the most effective way possible, from what I can see – affecting their economy and their education.

      And since I disagree strongly with how the Israelis are treating the Palestinians, I find no problem with this.

  6. Roberto Hollin April 19, 2016 at 2:47 pm | #

    Won’t work, but if it makes you feel better, go for it.

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