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.”