On May 21, I attended a panel discussion in Isla Vista organized by a student group calling itself “Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB.” I had heard that the meeting would discuss an e-mail sent by Professor W. Robinson about the recent violent conflict between Israelis and Palestinians to the students in his upper division course Sociology 130: Sociology of Globalization. The e-mail included parallel depiction of Holocaust victims and of Palestinian victims of Israeli violence in and around Gaza. The material made no mention of the rocket attacks out of Gaza on the Israeli village of Sderot over many months prior to the Israeli assault on Gaza.
The faculty panel consisted of Richard Falk (international relations, Princeton, retired), Harold Marcuse (history, UCSB), Lisa Hajjar (law & society, UCSB) and Geoff Raymond (sociology, UCSB), all of them known to me in various ways, including their strong anti-Israeli stances. Just before the panel began its presentation, I challenged the total one-sidedness of the panel and proposed that the composition be diversified right then and there or to defer the meeting to a later date. The chair ruled that the meeting would continue as planned and further discussion of my proposal would be deferred until AFTER the panel’s presentation: Effectively, my proposal was rejected.
At that point I asked to make a few comments. I was given one minute, and began to explain my qualifications relevant to this panel discussion, including the fact that I was UCSB’s first Nobel Laureate. Despite applause for me and shouts of “let him speak,” the microphone was taken out of my hand. For comparison, the panel members had approximately 20 minutes each available. No member of the panel protested my exclusion.
All four members of the panel held the opinion that Professor Robinson’s e-mail to students was unobjectionable and protected by his academic freedom. They added many comments. For example:
Falk said students should be congratulated for ignoring administration and/or academic senate restrictions during times such as those of the Gaza crisis.
Marcuse remarked that he had come close to using the same e-mail material in one of his holocaust courses.
Hajjar first stated that professors had unlimited academic freedom, then retreated to a position of nearly unlimited collective academic freedom of faculty members. She also stated that students had no academic freedom but did have some (unspecified) rights. They must learn to confront tough material, presumably including the controversial e-mail.
Raymond claimed the e-mail, including the controversial photographs, did not constitute a significant intrusion of irrelevant material, because it could be read and the images viewed in just a few minutes within a one-hour lecture.
What I had wanted to say, but was not allowed to say, were primarily two points:
1. The e-mail images of two groups of twenty corpses or body parts of alleged Holocaust victims and of killed, alleged Gaza Palestinians, without authentication and without appropriate discussion led by Professor Robinson, had, in my view, the effect of unacceptably demonizing today’s Israelis and dishonoring the memory of the six million Jews and others murdered during the Holocaust in the 1940s.
2. The e-mail material also violated, in my view, the explicit academic senate injunction against introducing significant material unrelated to the course. In the present case, the emphasis of Sociology 130 on sociological aspects of globalization, especially in Latin America, was partly replaced by a discussion-free condemnation of Israel for alleged genocide of the Palestinians of Gaza.
After adjournment, some 20 or 30 people drifted toward me to chat and to thank me. They included an Arab lady with her teenage daughter and the two UCSB students who had lodged the complaint against Professor Robinson.
All in all, it was not a good day for academic freedom or academic rights at UCSB. Fortunately, such days are very rare. Let us commit ourselves to keeping them that way.