The Open Letter Opposing Legislative Meddling in University Politics

By Kindred Winecoff

I speak for none of the Jilted other than myself but I wanted to pass along this open letter, addressed to various legislative bodies in the U.S. who are trying to politicize universities in what I think is an unproductive way. Or, to quote from the letter:

Academics and commentators—including Crooked Timber bloggers—disagree over the American Studies Association’s decision to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. There should be far less disagreement over two bills recently proposed in New York’s and Maryland’s state legislatures. These bills prohibit colleges and universities from using state monies to fund faculty membership in—or travel to—academic organizations that boycott the institutions of another country. Designed to punish the ASA for taking the stance it has, these bills threaten the ability of scholars and scholarly associations to say controversial things in public debate. Because they sanction some speech on the basis of the content of that speech, they run afoul of the US First Amendment.

Read the whole thing and consider signing it if you agree. I did, and so have an impressive list of academics, media figures, and concerned citizens from all over the political spectrum. Here is why.

I disagree completely with the ASA’s boycott, as does one of the writers of the letter, and I argued with Corey Robin (the other writer, who supports the ASA) over this topic on Twitter. As it happens, the university that employs me withdrew its institutional membership with the ASA over this question; while I probably would not have gone so far I appreciate the reasons it did so and am not offended by them. I disagree with the BDS movement on both philosophical and pragmatic grounds.

But I oppose cynical legislative meddling into institutions of higher education even more. Universities and colleges are quite good at self-policing while remaining inclusive and moderate; we don’t need politicians picking and choosing which groups are above board and which are not. Moreover, the ASA’s “boycott” was so toothless as to be inconsequential; holding education funding hostage for petty politicking could obviously be quite consequential.


4 thoughts on “The Open Letter Opposing Legislative Meddling in University Politics”

  1. Haven’t read the letter in full (lack time), but based on your remarks it seems that the principle of academic liberty is muddied by two factors: (1) the ASA’s decision results in a block to academic liberty (which the proposed legislation, obliquely & circuitously, tries to protect), & (2) the proposed legislation in no way whatever interferes with academics’ right to free expression or free movement … only the use of state funding to underwrite free movement. Seems to me the ASA is picking — not an academic, but an actually political — fight, & that the politicians are merely meeting them on their own chosen turf. When academics INSTITUTIONALLY take on nation states — rather than critically, dialectically, verbally — then they, like anyone else, can expect for nation states to take them on INSTITUTIONALLY. Or am I missing something?


  2. The principle of academic liberty is not my main concern, as it tends to always and only be in the eye of the beholder, and I did not mention it using my own words for that reason.

    Your description is basically right, except for this:

    “& that the politicians are merely meeting them on their own chosen turf.”

    The ASA can do and say what it wants. Any individual academics can say and do what they want. Organizational bodies within academies can say and do what they want. But once the Leviathan gets involved the turf has been changed, in a significant way.

    And that is my objection. I see no need for state-level or federal-level action in this sphere. Any legislation on this issue could only end what is a vibrant and ongoing debate.

    NOW: if this was a principled stand on the point of the legislators — that universities and those affiliated with them should make no statements on any grounds or risk public funding — then I could at least understand. But this is brazenly political and the principle is worth sticking up for regardless of one’s particular attitude towards the ASA’s silly boycott.


  3. Have read the full letter, & remain — provisionally — unconvinced that there’s a legitimate grievance here. Speaking only for myself, of course.


  4. Speaking only for myself, legislation of this type is what requires justification. I recoil from capricious authorities. And again: if the legislators were invoking any reasonable principle at all then I could at least countenance it. But they aren’t. This is prejudicial and thus objectionable.


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