Jewish community leaders and U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson (R-Ct.) have met with Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) President Richard Judd about the university's upcoming "Middle Eastern Studies Summer Institute for Teachers."
The course for middle and high school teachers, scheduled to be held July 29-Aug. 2, lacks balance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Jewish leaders say. The Institute is funded by a $24,832 grant from the U.S. Department of Education.
In a July 15 meeting with President Judd and his staff, representatives of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT) and the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford expressed their concern that the federally-funded course lacked a scholar who could fairly present the Israeli side of the Middle East conflict.
"Our one demand and one demand only was balance, that they allow professors who represent diverse perspectives to be involved," said Jann Renert, executive director of the Connecticut Chapter of the AJC.
"We made very clear that we were not there to demonize the presenters or to suggest that the course be cancelled," noted David Waren, executive director of the Connecticut Region of ADL. "Rather, our request was very reasonable. Given that some of the lecturers are also political activists on behalf of the Palestinian cause, there need to be other voices as part of the course."
Jewish leaders objected to the use of taxpayer money to fund a biased program, according to Renert. They also expressed their concern that public school teachers are unaware of the political agenda of some of the professors teaching at the Institute.
In response to these concerns, Judd advised Jewish leaders that "it was prejudicial to assume that there would be bias" and "that as President it was not his role to determine balance in this or any other program that the University sponsors," according to a July 22 statement issued by CCSU.
"To do so, would infringe on the ability of faculty members to pursue intellectual truth and present it as they see fit."
However, Jewish leaders do not see the issue as one of academic freedom or censorship.
"No one from the organized Jewish community has suggested that CCSU faculty should not be allowed to teach about the Middle East or Islam," said Waren, adding that he's seen some evidence that some have been trying to "spin this as an effort at censorship."
"We explained that this course is different than ordinary courses taught during the year or teach-ins organized on campus because outsiders are being invited in for a very limited duration and a very limited purpose," he said.
The purpose for the teachers, according to Waren, is to produce curriculum for their classes.
"We explained that curriculum should be neutral," he said. "It should reflect both sides of the conflict."
"All the organizations involved [in the meeting] stand in strong support of freedom of speech on college campuses," said Renert.
U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson, whose Sixth District includes CCSU, told the Ledger that she had discussed the Institute at length with President Judd.
"My concern is that the presentation of issues in the Middle East is not balanced," she said. "Intellectual honesty requires that there be a presentation of both sides."
U.S. Rep. James Maloney (D-Ct.) expressed similar concerns in a July 12 letter to Judd.
"I hope that prior to the commencement of these sessions, you will address concerns that have been raised in the community regarding the balance of the instruction," Maloney wrote, adding, "Federally funded courses such as this should not be used to advance any individual agenda or political perspective."
Johnson commended members of the Jewish community for raising concerns about the course, adding that it "enabled President [Judd] to press the faculty on the importance of what they're teaching."
Following his meeting with Jewish community leaders, President Judd met with the Institute's director, Prof. Richard Benfield, and advised him of the Jewish community's concerns.
He also drafted a letter to Benfield, reiterating their conversation and urging, in light of the extreme sensitivity of the Middle East conflict, that "you and your colleagues pay scrupulous attention to the content of the sessions."
In the CCSU statement, as in the letter, Judd "expressed his faith in the faculty and their commitment to teach with intellectual honesty."
Nevertheless, Judd did not agree to add a faculty member who could present the Israeli side, as the Jewish groups had suggested. The Institute's faculty includes Dr. Norton Mezvinsky, a CCSU history professor known for his anti-Zionist views, CCSU professors Benfield, Ali Antar and Ghassan El-Eid, as well as Manchester Community College senior lecturer Fatima Antar.
Waren said he was "disappointed" with the president's decision.
However, Judd did promise to work with the Jewish community in the coming year to ensure that both sides of the Middle East conflict are presented on the CCSU campus, Waren said.
Jewish groups will also be taking steps to make sure that the curriculum developed from the institute is balanced.
"We will be reaching out to course participants and the districts they represent to ensure that the curriculum developed for high school and middle school students is free of bias and honestly depicts the history of the Middle East conflict," said Waren.
The CCSU Institute is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Eisenhower Professional Development Grant Fund, which is administered in Connecticut by the Connecticut Board of Governors for Higher Education and the Connecticut Humanities Council.