Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

On academic boycotts

Sean Decatur
December 23, 2013

Over the course of the past few days, I have received a number of inquiries about my stance on the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott of Israeli institutions.  After responding to many individual inquiries, I thought it best to share my thoughts here on the boycott and the decision of our American Studies program to withdraw as an institutional member of the ASA. 

Academic freedom – the unfettered exchange of ideas – is a cornerstone of liberal education.  Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, has called the ASA boycott “an attack on academic freedom, declaring institutions off-limits because of their national affiliations.”  The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has also made a compelling statement in opposition to academic boycotts, including the recent ASA resolution.  I cherish the concept of academic freedom, and I oppose the ASA boycott of Israel.

The boycott also ignores the importance of education – especially in disciplines such as American Studies – to incubate the very types of political change that the boycott proponents advocate.  From its origins in classical civilization, the study of the traditional liberal arts is meant to deepen our understanding of the human condition, including moral and ethical dimensions of our society, in order to enhance our capacity as citizens.  Through the study of literature, history, and philosophy, scholars, faculty, and students struggle to arrive at a deeper understanding of their own worlds.  One can look at the course offerings at the American Studies Department at Tel Aviv University and find courses similar to what one would find at Kenyon, including, for example, “The Age of Thoreau” and “African-American Literature.” And I am certain that the readings and topics of these courses stimulate discussions that are simultaneously similar to those at Kenyon, but, due to the context, fundamentally different. Imagine discussions of Toni Morrison’s Beloved in the context of a nation facing ethnic and religious strife, or reading Thoreau and Emerson in the context of a nation struggling with both existential challenges and the process of defining for itself concepts of justice and equality.  As the leader of an academic institution, I consider this an excellent example of the potential transformative power of the liberal arts, raising questions and generating discussions that both transcend time and place and also brightly illuminate current issues.

This is among the most powerful arguments in opposition to the decision of the ASA to boycott institutions from Israel.  Regardless of one’s views on the political solutions to Israeli/Palestinian relations, the cultural transformation needed to find peace in the region will depend on these types of discussions, which in turn require strong academic institutions with free and unfettered exchange of ideas with scholars from around the world.  Collaborations among individual scholars and among institutions have the potential to support and nurture this cultural transformation.  We should not be shutting out one side or the other, but rather open ourselves to engage in meaningful, substantial dialogue on fundamental questions with all sides.

The ASA is, first and foremost, an academic society aimed at the promotion of interdisciplinary studies of American culture and history. This commitment to scholarship, teaching, and learning is what drew Kenyon to participate in ASA activities in the past. But, as the president of a College with an unwavering commitment to the liberal arts and the concept of academic freedom, I reject the notion of a boycott of academic institutions as a geopolitical tool.  I concur with the decision of our American Studies program to withdraw as an institutional member of the ASA.