In this Oct. 7, 2011 photo, people walk on the campus of Brooklyn College in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Controversy erupted this past week over an event planned at Brooklyn College, renewing arguments over academic freedom.
Brooklyn College, one of the 24 institutions that make up the City University of New York system, was slated to host an event for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) group, an international organization that advocates Israel’s retreat from disputed territories in Palestine. The school’s political science department, along with several other student groups, co-sponsored the event, hoping to bring debate to campus.
And debate is exactly what they got.
From City Council members to representatives from the U.S. House, several New York City officials condemned not only the event, but also the college for hosting the event altogether. Assemblyman Dov Hikind called the chair of the political science department a “coward” and demanded that Brooklyn College president Karen Gould “show some leadership,” the Daily Beast reported. In a letter penned by Council Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler and signed by nine other City Council members, Fidler called the event “odious and wrong,” and even threatened to pull funding from the public college.
“We believe in the principle of academic freedom,” the letter states. “However, we also believe in the principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong.”
Well, that’s not quite how that works, Fidler.
The fact that this BDS event caused controversy is no surprise. But these officials’ interpretation of the nature of the event is highly flawed, and fails to adequately understand academic freedom even on its most basic level.
At the very core of academic freedom is the understanding that open communication is key to education, and educators shouldn’t be threatened when they include more unpopular sides to an argument.
In other words, you can’t say you support the concept of academic freedom — oh, except when an event doesn’t sit well with you.
Brooklyn College president Gould upheld this understanding of academic freedom. In a statement released Monday, Gould said though she personally didn’t support the tenets of the BDS group, the school reserved the right to host the event, and any others that may rub some the wrong way.
“Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses,” Gould said. “This spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.”
Still, some leaders in New York City remain unconvinced, arguing that the political science department couldn’t possibly hold an event so polarizing without a counterpoint group present. Hikind said during a press conference that hosting the event at all would have a “chilling” effect on campus, effectively only showing one side of the story.
But as Gould pointed out, groups that run counter to BDS’s views are welcome to bring their own debate to the Brooklyn College campus. The fact that the political science department offered funding for this event doesn’t mean that they won’t do it for a speaker that tears apart BDS. As a discipline, political science faculty members have a responsibility to present multiple sides to contentious arguments — and, yeah, that means sometimes you might not agree with what’s being said. But the very nature of the collegiate experience is to question your own beliefs, or at the very least, strengthen your own arguments by understanding exactly where the other side is coming from.
Resistance toward enemy lines is what made the Arab-Israeli conflict so divisive in the first place. It doesn’t do anyone any good to perpetuate the misunderstandings by forbidding some to speak.
Finding an anti-Israel event offensive? That’s fine. Finding it offensive enough to threaten pulling the plug on funding, undermining the job of the college itself? Well, that’s just odious and wrong.
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