Campus rhetoric needs to respect academic freedom

My first Vassar paper was returned with more red ink than black. The Intro Philosophy topic concerned the methodology of the Socratic dialogs. Professor Tillman’s main criticism was written in bold: “You nod to and then ignore the topic assigned!” Indeed, I had. I wanted to write about Plato’s thesis not the method. In my senior year, controversy erupted over William F. Buck­ley, Jr.’s selection as commencement speaker. Mr. Buckley’s opponents’ critique of the process quickly devolved into an address of his conserva­tive views. Mr. Buckley didn’t miss the logical leap but in a New York Times column he also depart­ed from the point branding my class as “ferocious illiterates.” Mr. Buckley’s fit of pique masked the valid point put to me by Professor Tillman: Opin­ions matter; in context.

The controversy over BDS proposals at Vas­sar have roots in President Hill’s rejection of the American Studies Association’s (ASA) boycott of Israeli academicians and institutions, and the open letters by 39 Vassar faculty and 66 “Fairness to Israel” alums. All suffer from this same error ignoring the context: the liberal arts mission of Vassar. Each, instead, seek to manipulate the insti­tutional forums. Like Mr. Buckley’s ill-tempered column, they obscure the threshold issue. This degrades the institutional forums and under­mines their own epistolary purposes. The Pales­tinian-Israeli conflicts are difficult to parse, much less resolve. Academic freedom and educational discourse, however, are clear cut. They must re­main apolitical to be effective. These activists seek to manipulate the forum.

Lost in this maelstrom are the functions of the College, its faculty and Student Government which should be limited to fostering a forum for the full and free expression of all sides of the de­bate. An institutional voice drowns debate de­feating that mission. The VSA’s BDS resolution should not be entitled to any more credence than expressions by any other 22 Vassar students. The mandate of Vassar’s administration, faculty and alumnae is to foster the mission of the College as a forum and catalyst for educational, emotional, political and cultural discussion and growth.

The administration’s rejection of the ASA and VSA boycotts actually promote the freedom of all students and faculty of the College in expressing their individual opinions in the forums and facil­ities of the College which shouldn’t be manipu­lated for any political agenda. Strong polemics should withstand close inquiry, scrutiny and cri­tique without institutional imprimaturs. The in­stitutional strength of Vassar lies in its ability to afford an honest, fair and open forum for scholar­ship and debate.

The Administration has studiously avoided ad­dressing, much less adopting, any position in the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Rather, the position is limited to the rejection of institutional participation in economic and academic boycotts which take such positions; these are political acts incongruous with the institutional mission and antithetical to academic freedom. All opinions matter, but, in context, the College’s role as a fo­rum for the free exchange and critical examina­tion of those opinions matters more. An institu­tional stance on these underlying issues is not the College’s function. It is hard to argue, as the ASA and dissenting Vassar faculty nonetheless try, that BDS boycotts or excommunication of educational institutions or academicians somehow promotes the academic mission. The VSA resolutions im­plicitly opined this same unfathomable position. These arguments ignore the context and fail on that threshold issue.

The “Open Letter” by 39 Vassar Professors is most disturbing in its pretensions to academic freedom. Their premise that President Hill’s in­stitutional policy “will [somehow] have a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and opinions on our campus and across the broader society” is a non-sequitur. Really? How so? The answer is never offered and the premise abruptly aban­doned in favor of professing their political views with an “ends justify these means” polemic. They are individually not institutionally entitled to this position. The cause of academic freedom is tran­substantiated into the stifling of differing voic­es by closing the door to the halls of debate. As teachers, they leave academic freedom in the dust of their abrupt thematic turn. The VSA board has learned a poor lesson from these masters. These arguments begin with “a nod at” academic free­dom and then ignore it to espouse a political posi­tion. Professor Tillman, where are you (and your red pen) now!

Academic freedom requires fostering, not hin­dering, the free flow and exchange of all ideas. In academia, arguments should only be won by their ability to withstand critical communal scrutiny. Boycotts conflate pedagogy with policy, serving neither end but dis-serving Vassar’s core institutional values. Manipulation of the College’s resources is a crutch which is self-defeating and misses the target. The ASA boycott is a good ob­ject lesson for Vassar demonstrating the corrosive effects on the institution when politics is allowed to subjugate context in a shift from the core func­tion of promoting scholarship.

The recent BDS proposals, the faculty “Open Letter” and the FTI alumnae letter all suffer from their inability to resist getting lost in the thicket of the politics while ignoring the threshold insti­tutional context. Neither “truth” nor “justice,” as anyone may see it, are directly at stake. Instead, the issue is the College’s institutional role pro­viding an open forum to address these issues un­tinged by institutional positions.

The sequella of this institutional policy demonstrates that a vigorous (albeit not always healthy) debate was engendered. Institutional im­primaturs, however, would have cast intimidation into the arguments fouling the halls of debate. All these differing arguments owe their ability to voice their views in open College forums to the very principles of academic freedom these activ­ists ironically seek to contest and contort.

On campuses, the freedom of ideas is the prime directive. Vassar has a tradition of academ­ic freedom which demands that all may freely ex­pose their views to critical inquiry and critique; no matter how “wrong” or arguable they may be thought to be. Only then they can they be exam­ined, assessed and assayed. That is how to train young minds in critical thinking. It is a self-cor­recting exercise. Demonstrably false or weak po­sitions are exposed and deposed in a forum which lays bare their inherent weaknesses. Varying perspectives can be evaluated by, rather than im­posed upon, students who can reject those which cannot withstand scrutiny and refine to those that can without exclusion, censure, excommuni­cation or intimidation. It’s the Socratic method­ology Professor Tillman assigned me to evaluate!

Debates will not be won by imposition nor by silencing points of view. Courage in one’s convic­tions do not need such tactics. They are antitheti­cal to ANY notion of academic freedom.

When Professor Tillman reviewed that paper with me, he did two things I have never forgotten. First, he returned his royalty on the required text­book. Next, he told me something that has stuck with me far longer than those funds. He said, “Ef­fective polemics requires intellectual integrity…a winning argument which is beside the point is not a winning argument at all.”

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