By now, most of you have heard of Steven Salaita, whose unhinged (that's a charitable description) tweets apparently caused the University of Illinois Board of Trustees not to approve his contingent offer of tenured employment.
Shortly after UI at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise indicated that she would not forward the contingent offer to the Board (though she later did so), I noted the irony of protests that Salaita's academic freedom was being infringed, Steven Salaita controversy points to the hypocrisy of anti-Israel academic boycotters:
I have argued strenuously against the academic boycott of Israel, led by people like Steven Salaita, on a number of grounds.
Not the least of those grounds is that academics who insist on violating the academic freedom of Israelis and those who wish to interact with Israelis do damage to the system in its entirety….
There is a related point to how academic boycotts have a negative ripple effect.
On what ground do the academic boycotters of Israel claim their own academic freedom if they are so quick to deny it to others?
Because they think they are right? What if the people who want to boycott the boycotters believe just as firmly in their own correctness?
Now you can see why universities reacted so swiftly in rejecting the academic boycott — it's easy to start, but hard to stop….
Many of those rushing to Salaita's defense on the ground of academic freedom, however, themselves are among the worst violators of academic freedom through the anti-Israel academic boycott. They would turn away a Dean or representative of an Israeli academic institution, would bar joint programs and research, and even cooperation in journal publications….
The inherent contradiction of destroyers of academic freedom objecting to one of their own allegedly (I repeat, allegedly) being denied academic freedom will be lost on the academic boycotters….
Salaita has filed a federal lawsuit over denial of his contingent offer, and ultimately the court will determine whether Salaita's legal rights were violated.
But along the way, an interesting academic boycott developed — of UI-UC, by Salaita supporters. There are a mix of motivations there: Many are outright anti-Israel boycotters and anti-Zionist activists, but many others (perhaps the majority) are concerned with issues of faculty power and autonomy (what they call "self-governance), some true believers that Salaita's rights were violated, and fringe elements like Brian Leiter.
The impact on UI-UC of the academic boycott almost certainly is overstated — the institution will survive Salaita, regardless of court outcome.
But the academic boycott has driven home to at least one UI-UC pro-Salaita faculty member the destructiveness and ultimate futility of academic boycotts.
In The Chronicle of Higher Ed, Susan Koshy, an associate professor of English, Asian-American studies, and South Asian and Middle Eastern studies at UI-UC, confronted this problem.
For someone like me, who is inside the university and supports Salaita, the boycott [of UI-UC] represents an experiential impasse. I find myself in the impossible position of being the target of a boycott as a member of an institution whose actions I and many others here have challenged. Unlike faculty members outside Urbana-Champaign whose safe target is another university, our target is our own. The frequently repeated joke here—How do we boycott ourselves?—captures this problem. How do you oppose your own institution yet protect valuable parts of it at the same time?
Being inside a boycott has forced me to think hard about the nature of this political weapon, not because I oppose its use but because I have come to see the difficulty of using it with the care it requires. A boycott whose target is a university—particularly one where the faculty has challenged the decision that led to the boycott—carries serious responsibilities for its supporters.
A striking feature of the boycott against the university is the extent to which it deviates from many other boycott campaigns. It does so in three ways.
First, … the actions and narrative of this boycott have been shaped mostly by those on the outside. Outside actors have taken the lead in organizing it and defining its stakes, sometimes without sustained input from those on the inside, although often in stated symbolic solidarity with them.
Second,… the boycott has been the primary weapon for pressuring the university to reconsider its decision and thus has been wielded with unusual punitive force and inflexibility. The boycott is a blunt instrument to begin with, but when it is used as the primary means to effect change, it is liable to be used heavy-handedly….
Third, … A notable feature of this boycott has been the pivotal role played by the Internet in organizing and publicizing it and producing its narrative…. But those statements tend to be skewed toward authority figures, people with an established online presence, and groups with political capital….
This could be a story about an academic who realized, now that her university is on the receiving end, that little good and much bad comes from shutting down academic interactions and the application of collective academic punishment.
Perhaps most important, the claim of anti-Israel boycotters that they only boycott institutions, not people, is laid bare. There is no distinction in reality, as Prof. Koshy's column attests.
But the story doesn't stop there.
It turns out that Prof. Koshy herself has endorsed the academic boycott of Israel, signing an August 4, 2014 statement:
The Statement reads, in part:
As Middle East scholars and librarians, we feel compelled to join the growing number of academics in Israel and around the world who support the Palestinian call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. This call responds to Palestinian civil society organizations' long-standing appeal for the comprehensive implementation of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions (BDS) of Israel, and is supported by the Palestinian Federation of Unions of University Professors and Employees (PFUUPE).
Following in the footsteps of the growing number of US academic associations that have endorsed boycott resolutions,[footnote omitted] we call on our colleagues in Middle East Studies to boycott Israeli academic institutions, and we pledge not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.
I emailed Professor Koshy for "comment as to whether, and in what way, your experience with the academic boycott of UI-UC influences your agreement with the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions," and "Do you still support the academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions?"
No response so far. I hope Professor Koshy has changed her mind about the academic boycott of Israel, even if she has not changed her mind about the politics of it.
This is what happens when academic boycotts become the political tool of choice. It's easy to open the door, but hard to close it. And the boycotters can't complain when they become the boycotted.