On Dec. 19, 2013, the Los Angeles Times published an op-ed written by University President Michael Roth denouncing the recent American Studies Association’s (ASA) resolution to support the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. One section of Roth’s article, in which he encouraged others to speak out against the ASA resolution, has elicited significant backlash from students and alumni.
“As president of Wesleyan, and as a historian, I deplore this politically retrograde resolution of the American Studies [Association],” Roth wrote in the article. “Under the guise of phony progressivism, the group has initiated an irresponsible attack on academic freedom. Others in academia should reject this call for an academic boycott.”
In response, a number of University alumni published a petition questioning Roth’s statement and listing the omissions they observed in his condemnation of the ASA resolution.
“[Roth’s] editorial did not address the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students, who are routinely denied access to teaching, travel, and free speech,” the alumni petition reads. “It also did not address the academic freedom of American scholars who work with Palestinians, or who speak and write in support of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions], although that freedom is now under threat in New York State and beyond.”
The petition describes Roth’s involvement in divestment rallies and boycotts when he was a student at the University and questions his current actions in light of his past beliefs. It goes on to denounce the claim that Roth’s statement encompasses the beliefs of the student body and the University alumni.
“President Roth does not speak in our names when he calls on academics to reject the boycott without first informing themselves of the issues and familiarizing themselves with the intellectually rigorous and democratically accountable manner in which the ASA, together with a growing number of academic organizations, reached their decision,” reads the petition.
The petition has been signed by over 150 alumni, including many who are members of the ASA. Evan Weber ’13, one alumnus who signed the petition, described the formation of a group of concerned alumni after recent events at the University.
“There was a spurt of organizing by alumni/ae around the Administration’s reaction to de-gendering of bathrooms by trans* student activists and their allies,” Weber wrote in an email to The Argus. “After seeing how effective alumni/ae response was in potentially weakening the ultimate sanctions for the students, several alumni/ae decided it would be useful to start creating a sort of ‘progressive’ alumni organizing community to respond to campus issues and support student activism.”
Anwar Batte ’13 was another alumnus who signed the petition.
“Signing onto this statement seemed like a small but significant way to counter President Roth’s defense of the military occupation of Palestine while reminding the Wesleyan community that wealthy corporate heads like our President and Board of Trustees don’t speak for all of us—and never will,” Batte wrote in an email to The Argus.
Weber echoed Batte’s rejection of Roth’s opinion as a representation of the University’s values.
“Just as President Roth notes that ‘not all those in academia agree with ASA’s action,’ not all ambassadors of the Wesleyan brand disagree with their action and I think it’s unfair of President Roth to leverage his association with the University to make his point,” Weber wrote. “I signed the letter because I think it’s important that alternative voices are heard as well.”
On Jan. 4, University parent and UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley published an article in opposition to Roth’s op-ed titled “Defending Zionism Under the Cloak of Academic Freedom.” It was published on mondoweiss.net, a website that covers news surrounding American foreign policy in the Middle East. Kelley’s article names some of the same inconsistencies in Roth’s argument as the alumni petition.
“I did expect a more considered and intellectually honest disagreement from the president of Wesleyan University—a world-class institution with a long and distinguished record of teaching (and doing) social justice, grounded in an internationalist, humanist vision of liberal arts education; a school to which I gave nearly a quarter of a million dollars of my hard-earned academic salary so that my daughter (class of 2012) could learn what it means to be an informed, critical, engaged citizen of the world,” Kelley wrote in the article.
Some alumni who signed the petition agreed with parts of Roth’s stance, but resented the way in which he presented his argument.
“I can’t say that I support the boycott itself,” Mickey Capper ’13 wrote in an email to The Argus. “I do find it embarrassing, though, to read an op-ed from my alma mater’s president that seems more interested in using big words to strike a firm stance than addressing the central issue (Palestinian intellectual freedom) thoughtfully. I stand by my signature condemning Roth’s repugnant procrastination from drafting an actionable plan to return to a need-blind admissions policy.”
Capper amended that it is unclear whether or not the ASA boycott will allow increased access to academic institutions in Israel.
“Both sides of the argument claim they are fighting for academic freedom, but it’s hard to know whether the constraints on Israel’s academic institutions will result in more flexibility for Palestinian academics,” Capper wrote.