Academic Freedom: Sponsorship and the BDS Controversy

February 6, 2013

What does it mean to “sponsor” an event at a college or university? That issue has been thrown into high profile by a controversy that has erupted at Brooklyn College (CUNY) occasioned by an event scheduled for February 7 that will feature a lecture by Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti “on the importance of BDS in helping END Israeli apartheid and the illegal occupation of Palestine” (emphasis in original poster).

BDS Poster Brooklyn College“BDS” stands for “boycotts, divestment, sanctions,” and the poster adds in explanation that this is “a strategy that allows people of conscience to play an effective role in the Palestinian struggle for justice.”

The Inside Higher Ed story about the controversy is entitled “Who Can Speak at Brooklyn College?” This is an important question, to be sure, particularly with the outrageous calls to cancel the event. Academic freedom is indeed under threat.

In this controversy, however, I am more interested in the question of who can sponsor an event at Brooklyn College — or at any other college or university?

No one should doubt, I hope, that students and faculty on a college campus have the freedom to speak the truth as they know it. But how and when can outsiders we invited to speak on a campus, to be given access to a lecture hall and a place on the schedule? That is, perhaps, the harder question.

The President of Brooklyn College (CUNY), Karen Gould, has made a strong statement affirming academic freedom. In a statement posted on the institution’s Facebook Page (!), she declared “Our commitment to the principles of academic freedom remains steadfast. … Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country. Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.” Since some members of NYC’s City Council have threatened to take funding away from Brooklyn College if the event goes ahead, her statement is both necessary and courageous.

You can see from the poster that the event is sponsored by the Brooklyn College Students for Justice in Palestine. At the bottom of the poster is a list of twenty-three (by my count) co-sponsoring organizations. One of those is the Department of Political Science at Brooklyn College, and that has what has sparked the controversy. It is their sponsorship to which critics have objected on the grounds that their “sponsorship” implies “support” of the ideas that will be expressed.

It is that false connection between “sponsoring” and “supporting” that President Gould rightly rejects. “Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate,” she says. And she adds, “The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event.”

To sponsor an event is simply to say “here is an idea or a point of view worth our hearing.” It is not a statement of agreement with the point of view. Gould says “students and faculty, including academic departments… have the right to invite speakers.” I would have preferred she had said “recognized student organizations, academic programs and departments … have the right to invite speakers” — to sponsor events. I do not believe we normally want to give individual faculty members or individual students that right or privilege. We want there to be some discussion among two or more people on the campus before deciding that someone or some idea is worth a hearing and worth an investment of institutional resources to provide that hearing.

Moreover, “sponsorship” involves taking responsibility for the event: for welcoming those who attend, for reminding them of the ground rules for discussion on a university campus, for introducing the speakers, for seeing that the discussion remains civil throughout the event, and for taking steps to steer the event back to civil ground if it goes awry.

On the other hand, “sponsorship” does not involve an obligation to ensure that any one event is “balanced” or even that one event is “balanced” with another. Thus, I would have preferred that President Gould had not added, “Contrary to some reports, the Department of Political Science fully agrees and has reaffirmed its longstanding policy to give equal consideration to co-sponsoring speakers who represent any and all points of view.”  A college or university as a whole does have an obligation to see that there is a general roundedness (not any particular partiality) to the viewpoints deemed “worth attention.” But that should not be taken to require an obligation to provide a hearing to every alternative idea to any one given attention.  And certainly that obligation should not fall on any one organization or department within a university.

I am also troubled by others on the list of the twenty-three “co-sponsors,” and for three sorts of reasons. First, an event needs only one legitimate sponsor. The more “sponsorship” is diffused among many organizations, the more the attendant responsibilities may become diffused — perhaps to the point that no organization feels genuinely responsible. Other student organizations or departments might be listed as “supporting” the event, especially if they have given material aid, for example if they assisted with publicity.

A second reason is that the sponsorship should come from within the college or university community. If you look at the list of twenty-three, you see a number that are outside organizations: student groups from Hunter, John Jay, Columbia and NYU; Occupy Wall Street; various labor organizations.  To “sponsor” an event is also to host it, and a group can only host an event if it is a recognized part of the college or university where the event is held. Again, those outside organizations might properly be listed as providing support for the event.

Finally, a long list of sponsors begins to make “sponsorship” actually appear to be “advocacy” or “endorsement.”  Why would such groups want to be listed? The appearance is that they want to band together to say ‘we really agree with the ideas that will be presented.’ It only takes one or two organizations to say ‘these ideas are worth our hearing.’ Sponsorship is not endorsement; a long list of sponsors begins to weaken that principle.

Meanwhile, 642 miles due west along I-70, the very next day (February 8) one of the two speakers (Omar Barghouti) will give a lecture in Stout Meeting House at Earlham College entitled “Israel is no South Africa! Why BDS?” There does not appear to be any controversy about the event at Earlham.  A letter sent to the college’s faculty says “This event is sponsored by the Peace and Global Studies Department (PAGS), the office of Multicultural Affairs, The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), BDS Earlham, Students for Peace and Justice in Palestine (SPJP), Black Students Union (BSU), and Sociedad de Estudiantes Latinos (SEL).”  Again, an academic program, a few Earlham student organizations, and one more — another outside group.

I’m very fond of the American Friends Service Committee. Indeed I am a member of its Corporation and serve on a few national committees of that splendid organization. But I think it wrong that they are listed as a “sponsor” of the Earlham event, even if (as I surmise) they are helping to arrange Omar Barghouti’s appearances across the U.S. They should be listed as an organization providing support, not as a sponsor.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to Academic Freedom: Sponsorship and the BDS Controversy

  1. Tim Johnsmith says:

    Yes, isn’t Earlham such a wonderful place? Where the merits of BDS/ Palestinian liberation can be argued about by students and faculty, but where no speakers are ever invited who will provide any legitimacy to any viewpoint other than some form of the Palestinian narrative (as for example, its modern BDS form).

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