First the New York State Senate passed a bill prohibiting American Studies departments in public universities from using state funds to be institutional members of the American Studies Association, or to reimburse scholars for travel expenses to their conferences – this in retaliation to the ASA’s support of a boycott of Israeli institutions. That bill, now stalled in the New York Assembly, was opposed by a large coalition of sane groups, including the New York Times, which wrote an excellent editorial against the bill here.
Now a copy-cat bill has been introduced into the Maryland state legislature. Not only would it penalize departments and individuals who were members of the American Studies Association and who wished to travel to conferences on state research money, it would reduce funding to any institution that authorized travel money for such a conference by 3% in the following fiscal year! Yes, that’s right. If Prof. Ira Berlin, Distinguished University Professor of History at the University of Maryland, and world-famous authority on the history of slavery, were to receive travel reimbursement from his department for a talk on his scholarly expertise at an American Studies Association meeting, the University of Maryland would lose 3% of its funding for the following year -- and all in the name of academic freedom!
Have we gone mad? Are we living in a cuckoo world?
Readers of this blog know that I am not an absolutist on academic boycotts as a matter of principle, that I endorsed the ASA boycott decision, and that I continually express solidarity with the global BDS movement and their three goals. But even were I opposed on principle to academic boycotts – no, especially were I opposed on principle to academic boycotts, I would fight this gross violation of academic freedom and independence, tooth and nail. After all, what has happened here? A small academic organization passes a mild resolution urging boycott of institutions, not individuals, in response to a cry from Palestinian civil society – and the pro-Israel bullies flex their legislative muscle and threaten universities with the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in state funding should one of their departments join the organization?
It’s certainly ok for faculty to argue against the ASA decision. Just today I received a request from a colleague to sign a petition opposing boycott of Israeli institutions. I didn’t sign, but I very much understand the arguments of those who do, especially those who are absolutist on academic freedom. I am not of their number, but I am pretty close. I would much prefer, say, a cut-off of military aid to Israel, than a boycott of Tel-Aviv university, with which my university has recently signed a partnership agreement.
But when the state reserves the right to decide what travel it will fund and what travel it will not fund, it won’t take long before it legislates what should be taught and what must not be taught. After all, it’s the taxpayers’ money, it will be argued, and there are community standards.
Now there’s the real threat to academic freedom and the free-flow of ideas.