More on Lawrence Summers’s Academic Freedom and BDS Speech

By February 6, 2015

On Tuesday, FIRE co-founder and chairman Harvey Silverglate wrote about a thoughtful speech given by FIRE Board of Advisors member and former Harvard President Lawrence Summers titled “Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism.” Summers gave the speech last Thursday, January 29, at the Columbia Center for Law and Liberty, and he made a strong case that professors should defend academic freedom, while at the same time saying they need to do more to oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

Notably, Summers’s remarks focused on methods he believes are not appropriate to use in the battle of political ideologies on campus. Perhaps more important than what he recommends for opposing BDS are the tactics and policies he rules out:

It is worth noting, of course, that Harvard University is still a “red light” school in terms of speech codes. Any help we can get from Harvard faculty, including Professor Summers, in reforming the codes there would be greatly appreciated.

However, Summers states, “Of course in rejecting these measures I did not commit to refrain from criticizing statements, publications, or even invitations if I felt that doing so was in the interest of the community.”

FIRE has always recognized that university presidents and administrators can use their “bully pulpit” to opine on serious issues and topics, or even to express their disapproval of a student or faculty opinion. Perfect neutrality on the part of an administration is unrealistic, and seeing a university president say, “You’re perfectly free to have that opinion; I just strongly disagree,” is among the most preferable of the approaches we’ve seen administrations take when faced with controversial topics. Yet doing so always comes with the risk that by opining on political issues, a university president might imply—or others might reasonably infer—that punishment is in store for dissenters.

Summers consistently tried to allay such fears while he was president of Harvard by explaining that his position was not the college’s institutional position; as he notes in his speech, “from my perspective I upheld academic freedom by making clear that any member of the community could say whatever they wished and could petition the University as they saw fit without fear of retribution.” Of course, now that Summers is once again a university professor, he is free to argue, criticize, and condemn the college decisions, his fellow faculty members’ opinions, and student sentiments as much as any other professor. Summers does just that in his speech by tackling some of the most controversial issues in academia: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the BDS movement.

FIRE’s position on the Israel-focused BDS movement is driven by our concern for academic freedom—for students and professors, and for its continuing importance as a meaningful concept in and of itself. Students and professors must be perfectly free to support boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions against Israel or any other country they wish, and they must not face punishment for this support. As you might expect, FIRE has opposed attempts to punish organizations for supporting BDS, and we have certainly defended professors’ rights to be highly critical of Israel—or, frankly, any other country, person, or idea.

But while students and professors are entirely free to support and campaign for the BDS movement, some of the actual goals of that movement are seriously at odds with fundamental aspects of academic freedom. In particular, the “boycott” part of BDS, which would require American academics not to cooperate with Israeli scholars or institutions, is incompatible with academic freedom. Academic freedom is a vast and majestic idea that relies on open communication across lines of difference in a global system of checking, arguing, researching, collaborating, and competing to produce better ideas. It’s a critical part of the way we come by new knowledge, creative solutions, and novel perspectives. The idea that a college might ban its scholars from working with scholars of a particular nationality or who work in a particular country in the name of opposing that country’s government is incompatible with this open, liberal system. It’s also foolhardy on any number of levels, including the fact that individual professors’ opinions often in no way reflect or even oppose the policies of their own governments.

Summers, despite his opposition to BDS, appears to be somewhat ambivalent about a general opposition to boycotts. In his piece, he talks about universities’ right to boycott KKK members, or how astrophysics departments can boycott creationists, or how philosophy departments tend to boycott followers of Ayn Rand. I do think there’s a difference between this kind of avoidance and making the choice to ban scholars from working with any professor from a particular country just because of his or her nation of origin. Even then, some of his examples miss the mark. For example, there is no reason why someone who believes God created the Earth couldn’t be a good astrophysicist. After all, many great scientists, including Isaac Newton, believed precisely that. The fact is, we spend far too much time wondering about people’s internal beliefs when we should get back to focusing more on simpler questions like “Are they good professors?” And as for philosophy departments boycotting devotees of Ayn Rand, I know a few people who would object to that as well, including Students for Liberty President Alexander McCobin, who gave a terrific speech on his academic work reconciling the philosophy of Rand with that of Kant at a conference I attended last summer.

The divestment issue is somewhat less clear-cut, as universities—just like private individuals—can choose to invest in whichever business or investments they wish, for many good or bad reasons. Again, though, institutions must be careful. The University of Chicago’s famous Kalven Report wisely warned about creating what the Supreme Court has called a “pall of orthodoxy” over campus. When a university declares a political position and follows that declaration with political action, it sends the message that this is now the official view of the university and suggests, accurately or not, that it is also the consensus view of the university’s scholars. Summers is very aware of this problem, and, in his opinion, Harvard is risking creating a pall of orthodoxy that is pro-BDS and anti-Israel.

Rather than take a more heavy-handed approach, Summers recommends Harvard join other colleges in disassociating from organizations that support BDS. That recommendation raises an interesting (and hard) question: Does disassociating from a group that you believe is at odds with academic freedom itself create a pall of orthodoxy at odds with academic freedom? After all, as ironic as it may seem, as a First Amendment lawyer, I do defend people’s right to oppose freedom of speech. But FIRE, for example, could certainly refuse to join an association or coalition or leave one that became, in our opinion, hostile to free speech. There can be little doubt that a university has no obligation to participate and be a named member of a group that opposes academic freedom. It’s up to the university itself to decide what to do.

No matter where you stand on BDS, it’s worth taking time to read Summers’s speech and give it some thought. He takes on the principles of BDS, not just on a theoretical level but also on a substantive one, flatly expressing a preference for real-world debates instead of those mired in abstractions. But no matter what you conclude, hopefully we can all agree with Summers’s observation that “universities excel when they are governed by the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority.”