EEUU: Libertad académica amenazada
Diciembre 21, 2023

US faculty promise fight to protect academic freedom

While Republicans seek momentum from fiery hearing and Penn ousting, professors gain clarity on the size of the fight ahead

US students and faculty are rising up against partisan attacks on university leaders, growing increasingly alarmed that a push to protect Jewish students has become a dire assault on academic freedom.

Among students, political activism in defence of Palestinian civilians showed signs of intensifying in the final days of the autumn semester, with sit-ins at several institutions demanding Israel be boycotted rather than politically subsidised.

And faculty – who often find themselves in confrontations with university presidents – are promising a substantially more unified defence of institutional leadership against politicians and private funders whom they see as a fundamental threat to US higher education.

“Faculty are really, really upset,” said Irene Mulvey, president of the American Association of University Professors. “They see it as an existential threat, not only to their profession, but also to American higher education, and they will be fighting back.”

Two months into the Israeli-Palestinian fighting, the turning point for US higher education was the congressional hearing staged earlier this month by House Republicans. The event was put forth as a study of campus antisemitism, but Republicans used the moment to subject the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to hours of caustic and relentless insistence that allowing pro-Palestinian campus protests represented an intolerable abuse of Jewish students.

Penn’s president, Elizabeth Magill, resigned shortly afterwards, and Harvard’s governing board held extensive discussions before allowing its president, Claudine Gay, to remain in office.

Those events had given “a wake-up call to a lot of faculty”, Professor Mulvey said, especially at campuses beyond places such as Florida and Texas, where the magnitude of partisan threats to academic freedom has become well known.

“Maybe faculty were thinking it was just going to be a problem in the red states,” she said. Now, she said, professors understood it was a “threat to higher education as a whole, because these things are not stopping in Florida and Texas – they’re moving, and it’s a well-funded, decades-long orchestrated effort to take control of curriculum”.

Professor Mulvey made it clear that the faculty pushback would go well beyond the barrage of signed statements from professors defending presidents. Some early individual instances include professors at the universities of Arizona and Southern California winning reinstatement after initially facing suspensions for making comments sympathetic toward Palestinians.

Major student protests, meanwhile, have included sit-ins at Harvard, Stanford and Brown universities and the University of Washington demanding the institutions end any investments in Israel.

The Republican criticism is also escalating, with the full House of Representatives passing a resolution condemning the hearing testimony of the three university presidents and more antisemitism-related investigations planned.

Two leading watchdog groups on Jewish and Muslim rights, the Anti-Defamation League and the Council on American-Islamic Relations, have been tallying much higher than usual numbers of incidents of violence and hostile rhetoric across the US since the October attack by Hamas.

And not all US university leaders are aligned on the political threat. Yale University’s president, Peter Salovey, publicly suggested some fault with the Harvard, Penn and MIT leaders over their handling of the congressional hearing, saying he took a tougher line against antisemitic expressions.

The chancellor of Syracuse University, Kent Syverud, was especially stark. The law professor said that, while he backed the concept of academic freedom, he put a higher priority – in the context of Israel-related protests – on the safety of students. “That responsibility to our students comes first, including over academic freedom and free speech,” Professor Syverud told a meeting of the university senate.

Professor Mulvey called the sentiment badly mistaken. “Universities have an obligation to protect the safety of their students,” she said. “But they have the same obligation to promote academic freedom – the idea that censorship or chilling of speech is going do anything to combat discrimination is just completely wrongheaded.”

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