November 14, 2018

If boycott is anti-academic what do we call its leaders?

To: John Sexton, Ph.D J. D.
President, New York University

Re. An Open Letter regarding NYU and ASA, via email, January 20, 2014.

Dear President Sexton,

I am writing to you as an alumnus of NYU-affiliated school who is deeply concerned with the recent boycott resolution by the American Studies Association (ASA) and its adverse impact on the reputation of NYU.

I received my PhD in 1965 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, which last month became part of NYU. In November 2013, I was awarded the Distinguished Alumnus Award from NYU-Poly, an honor that made my association with NYU stronger and full of pride. I was disappointed therefore to learn that the leadership of the ASA, which pushed through a resolution that threatens the very fabric of academic life, is so intimately connected with NYU, both academically and administratively.

Four ASA National Council members (25%) are affiliated with NYU and vocally campaigned for the resolution. In particular, the ASA President Elect, Lisa Duggan, is NYU Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis. This means that in the next couple of years, NYU will become the semi-official host to most activities of this organization, and will be perceived as the academic lighthouse from which this group will be broadcasting its irresponsible, anti-coexistence and anti-academic ideology.

I represent a group of professors who are particularly affected by the ASA boycott resolution.  As part of my recent appointment to Visiting Professor at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, I am engaged in joint scientific projects with the Technion and its research staff. I also collaborate with Israeli universities on journalistic projects, named after my late son, Daniel Pearl, which aim at bringing Israeli and Palestinian journalists together.

I think you can appreciate how demoralizing the ASA action has been for me, as well as for other professors in my position. It is not that we view the ASA action as a danger to the continuation of our research projects — scientific collaboration has endured many hecklers in the past, much louder than the ASA drummers, and the latters are clearly more interested in defamation than in an actual boycott. What we do consider dangerous is the very attempt to contaminate our scientific explorations with a charge of criminality, and to bring that “criminality” for a so called “debate” in the public square, on our own campuses. We view this attempt as a new form of McCarthy'ism that is aimed at intimidating and silencing opposing voices, and thus threatens academic freedom and the fundamental principles of academic institutions.

When a group of self-appointed vigilantes empowers itself with a moral authority to incriminate the academic activities of their colleagues, we are seeing the end of academia and the end of the sacred academic principles that have been painstakingly developed over centuries.

It is for this reason that I was personally disappointed with your letter which, while expressing opposition to boycotts in general and the ASA resolution in particular, failed to identify the ASA action as an imminent threat to NYU's  reputation. Your letter did not state whether the ASA will be able to continue using NYU facilities and services as its de-facto national headquarter, and what action you plan to take to restrain its leaders from re-staining the name of NYU with similar actions in the future.

In the name of many NYU alumni who wish to remain proud of their Alma Mater, I strongly urge you to remove NYU's name from the ASA “institutional member” list (as other universities have done), and to voice a strong and unequivocal condemnation of the pro-boycott activities of the ASA leadership.

Judea Pearl

Additional Remarks by J. Pearl.

This letter to President Sexton was written as
a reaction to a glaring contradiction between what
University administrators say about boycotts and
the way they tolerate, if not embrace boycott activists.
If boycott stands contrary to basic academic principles then,
surely, boycott advocates are undermining those principles
and should be exposed and treated as such.

Of course, no one expects university administrators to discipline
professors who violate academic principles; academic freedom demands
that its principles remain vulnerable to abuse, it is the
secret of their survival.
What one nevertheless expects campus leaders to do is to
DEFINE the norms of a desirable campus envionment, and
identify violators of those norms as a source of
embarrassment, whose actions are not conducive to the
kind of campus climate we wish to create.