As Clarion went to press, PSC President Barbara Bowen joined others in supporting Brooklyn College President Karen Gould’s defense of academic freedom after BC’s political science department came under attack for co-sponsoring a forum on the BDS movement, which calls for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. The college came under fire from critics who wrongly equated the department’s co-sponsorship with endorsement of the speakers’ views. Political Science Chair Paisley Currah noted that the department “welcome[s] – indeed encourage[s] – requests to co-sponsor speakers and events from all student groups, departments and programs.”
In her February 4, 2013 statement, President Gould said: “Students and faculty, including academic departments, programs, and centers, have the right to invite speakers, engage in discussion, and present ideas to further educational discussion and debate. The mere invitation to speak does not indicate an endorsement of any particular point of view, and there is no obligation, as some have suggested, to present multiple perspectives at any one event…. Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country.”
In a February 5, 2013 editorial, The New York Times said it “strongly defend[s] the decision by Brooklyn College President Karen Gould to proceed with the event, despite withering criticism by opponents and threats by at least 10 City Council members to cut city funding for the college. Such intimidation chills debate and makes a mockery of the ideals of academic freedom.”
In her letter to Gould, Bowen wrote that the PSC appreciates her “holding firm, even when under fire, to the principles of free speech and academic freedom.” Defending the University’s ability to serve as a home for open debate “is upholding the role of the university as a public good,” wrote Bowen. “The entire society gains when ideas – both good and bad – are exposed to the light of public discourse.” This is one of many reasons, she said, that “the PSC-CUNY Collective Bargaining Agreement makes academic freedom a contractual right.”
In a separate letter to a group of elected officials, the PSC president reminded them that “academic freedom is precisely the freedom to express a position even when that position is deeply unpopular.” The officials had written to Gould, demanding that the political science department withdraw its co-sponsorship of the forum. Bowen said they should retract that demand, adding, “A college president who stands up for academic freedom at CUNY – where academic freedom has come under repeated assault in recent years – should be applauded by ‘progressive’ politicians, not bullied.”
Mayor Speaks Out
On February 6, 2013, Mayor Bloomberg spoke up in support of both the college and the political science department. “I couldn’t disagree more violently with BDS as they call it, boycott, divestment and sanctions,” the mayor told reporters. “But I could also not agree more strongly with an academic department’s right to sponsor a forum on any topic that they choose. I mean, if you want to go to a university where the government decides what kinds of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea.”
The mayor rebuked City Council members who had explicitly threatened Brooklyn College’s funding over the incident: “The last thing that we need is for members of our City Council or State Legislature to be micromanaging the kinds of programs that our public universities run, and base funding decisions on the political views of professors. I can’t think of anything that would be more destructive to a university and its students.”
Text of Bowen’s letters and more information are available at www.psc-cuny.org.
Bowen invited PSC members to write to Clarion with their own points of view. An academic union, she noted, is always home to many different opinions.