A beautiful defense of academic freedom
Posted on February 6, 2013
In case you were not already aware, over the past couple weeks my alma mater Brooklyn College has been at the center of a controversial debate regarding academic freedom. In brief, the school’s Political Science Department announced that it would be sponsoring, along with several campus groups, an event on February 7 featuring the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to stop what it considers the Israeli oppression of Palestinians.
The event drew fiery criticism from a range of prominent people. Lawyer Alan Dershowitz claimed the school was engaging in anti-Israel propaganda, and urged for the inclusion of pro-Israel voices, or else cancellation of the event. The New York Daily News agreed with Dershowitz. New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind called for Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to step down. And perhaps worst of all, state and local lawmakers, such as the hypocritical City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, threatened the school’s funding over the event.
In response this criticism, Gould strongly defended the school’s right to hold events which include challenging and controversial points of view, noting that sponsorship does not equal endorsement. Brooklyn College professors, such as Corey Robin and Samir Chopra, also came to the defense of their school’s right to academic freedom. And, more broadly, media outlets such as the New York Times and writers such as Glenn Greenwald articulated why attacks on the school were wrong-headed.
But today, perhaps the most prominent figure expected to comment on this story finally has: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. And his remarks are, at least in my opinion, a beautiful defense of academic freedom:
Well look, I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, Boycott Divestment and Sanctions. As you know I’m a big supporter of Israel, as big a one as you can find in the city, but I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.
The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.
You know, the freedom to discuss ideas, including ideas that people find repugnant, lies really at the heart of the university system, and take that away and higher education in this country would certainly die.
As Brian Leiter asks, “Will the other miscreants from Dershowitz to City Councilman Fidler now recant? They’ve been whacked by both the Mayor and the New York Times, as well as the rest of the civilized world.”
We shall see. You can follow Corey Robin for updates.