Navigate to News section

Want to Fight BDS on Campus? Don’t Count on University Presidents

Despite a few recent examples of college administrations standing up for Jewish students, faculties are likely to bend to anti-Israel pressure in the long run unless opposed systemically

KC Johnson
March 25, 2019
Photo: Susan Melkisethian/Flickr
Photo: Susan Melkisethian/Flickr
Photo: Susan Melkisethian/Flickr
Photo: Susan Melkisethian/Flickr

Last week, Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver announced that he would not implement a resolution to deny Pitzer students the opportunity to study abroad at the University of Haifa. The measure, designed to implement the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, had overwhelmingly passed the College Council, a body including professors, students, and staff.

Oliver framed his decision partly in pragmatic terms—warning that the college shouldn’t take positions on political issues without consensus, asking the campus community to respect the academic freedom of students who wanted to study in Israel. But he also attacked the ideological core of a “prejudiced” proposal that was “singling out Israel” for an academic boycott.

A few weeks before Oliver’s action, Cornell President Martha Pollack rejected a demand from the local Students for Justice in Palestine branch that Cornell divest from Israel. Like Oliver, Pollack couched her decision partly in practical terms, championing dialogue in the abstract and noting that the “principal purpose” of the college endowment was “to provide income for advancing our mission-related objectives,” not satisfying the ideological objectives of various campus actors.

But Pollack also expressed her “strong opposition to BDS,” a movement that “unfairly singles out one country in the world for sanction when there are many countries around the world whose governments’ policies may be viewed as controversial.” The Cornell president was particularly troubled by the tendency of BDS activists to conflate “the policies of the Israeli government with the very right of Israel to exist as a nation.”

At the beginning of the 2018-2019 academic year, another administration—at the University of Michigan—checked extreme anti-Israel conduct on campus. Professor John Cheney-Lippold cited his support for BDS when refusing to write a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate student who wanted to study abroad at the University of Haifa. While faculty members sometimes decline to write a recommendation letter, often because an honest evaluation of the student’s abilities would hurt the student’s chances of a job or admission to grad school, it’s difficult to overstate the unprofessionalism of a professor withholding a letter of recommendation to advance the professor’s personal, political agenda.

Michigan President Mark Schlissel responded to the crisis with a weaker statement than that offered by President Pollack or President Oliver. But he nonetheless made clear the university’s opposition to the BDS cause. The university also disciplined Cheney-Lippold for his unprofessional conduct, denying him a merit-pay raise and postponing a previously scheduled sabbatical.

In one respect, the Pitzer, Cornell, and Michigan episodes are encouraging. Administrators confronted by troubling attacks on Israel from members of the campus community responded in a principled manner. In so doing, they upheld the academic freedom of their students who did not adopt a pro-BDS position. These actions recalled perhaps the most famous instance of a university president resisting the BDS agenda, when former Harvard President Larry Summers deemed efforts to force divestment from companies doing business in Israel “anti-Semitic in effect if not intent.”

Relying on university leaders to do the right thing, however, is an inherently risky strategy. Administrators are notoriously disinclined to stand on principle. (Consider, for instance, the recent revelation of an enormous gap between the private beliefs of college presidents worried about due process deprivations in Title IX adjudications and their public silence, lest they appear soft on campus crime.) As Harvey Silverglate and Alan Charles Kors noted a generation ago, “The primary goal of modern academic administrators is to buy peace during their tenure and to preserve the appearance of competence on their watch—an appearance essential to their careers. Administrators ask one question above all: Who can disrupt my campus and tarnish my reputation?”

In an environment where Democratic members of Congress are reviving anti-Semitic tropes or backing BDS even as applied to academic exchange programs, university leaders seem unlikely to continue to check passionate BDS advocates. That’s especially so given that the internal pressure on university administrators seems likely to intensify. After all, a few years ago it would have been inconceivable for the college council at an elite liberal arts college to overwhelmingly oppose a study abroad program with an Israeli university, or a professor at one of the nation’s top research universities to refuse to offer a recommendation solely because of his hostility to Israel.

A sounder approach is more aggressive resistance to BDS efforts from other campus constituencies, for which some models exist. On the faculty side, after several minor academic organizations had adopted resolutions committing support to BDS, the American Historical Association seemed poised to follow suit. But the Alliance for Academic Freedom, an organization championed by high-profile professors such as Maryland’s Jeffrey Herf and David Greenberg of Rutgers, engaged the BDS advocates on a variety of grounds, and helped to persuade more moderate AHA members to decisively reject the BDS resolution. The 2016 vote blunted the momentum of BDS activists in targeting academic organizations.

Earlier this week, meanwhile, San Francisco State University settled a lawsuit filed by two Jewish students who alleged religious discrimination in one of the nation’s most virulently anti-Israel campus environments. The university agreed to spend $200,000 on “educational efforts to promote viewpoint diversity (including but not limited to pro-Israel and Zionist viewpoints).” The school also released a statement reiterating “its commitment to equity and inclusion for all—including those who are Jewish,” and affirming “the values of free expression and diversity of viewpoints that are so critical on a university campus.”

The AHA and San Francisco State experiences show how faculty and students can successfully resist BDS efforts—albeit at considerable cost in terms of time and resources. But absent such efforts on behalf of the academic freedom of students and professors who want to engage with Israeli institutions, administrative opposition to BDS seems likely to give way—despite the recent, commendable trend.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

KC Johnson is professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.