September 19, 2019

NYU Dean of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences ‘Disappointed’ in Grad Speaker’s Remarks

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

New York University (NYU) Dean of Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Phillip Harper told NYU Doctoral Graduate and soon-to-be Northwestern University Professor Steven Thrasher he was “disappointed” in Thrasher’s May 20 remarks.

Thrasher expressed support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, praised NYU’s Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace and called Israel “an apartheid state.” Harper told Thrasher in a May 23 letter obtained by the Journal that his only “request to you beforehand was that you stick to the comments as presented to me, which gave no indication that you would make pronouncements of the sort that you did. While I of course clearly stated that I had no desire to censor you, I had hoped that you would proceed in a way that reflected respect for me; for your dissertation director, Professor Julie Livingston; for the Graduate School, which is granting your degree; and, most important, for the myriad graduates and guests in attendance at the ceremony. It is highly unfortunate that you decided against that course of action.”

Harper added that the graduation ceremony “is an inappropriate forum for the ad hoc expression of support for specific political causes. Knowing as I do your capacity for nuanced scholarly reflection (which, indeed, is one of the reasons you were selected to speak at the Convocation), I must especially denounce your failure to bring that capacity to bear in your improvised remarks at the ceremony. Your words in this instance fell far short of the expectations we have for someone who is a graduate of one of our doctoral programs, who should conceive the university as a site of open dialogue.” He went on to state that Thrasher’s comments cause audience members to feel “unwelcome” and “disrespected.”

“You no doubt expected that this would be the outcome, and for that reason omitted the remarks in question from the speech you submitted for prior review,” Harper wrote. “Your behavior in this event was eminently regrettable, and fell far short of what GSAS expects of those it prepares for membership in a learned profession. I sincerely hope that your future actions will be productively informed by your careful reflection on this current matter.”

Additionally, in a May 24 email to graduate students who attended the ceremony, Harper explained that GSAS faculty, staff and students select convocation speakers and that his staff suggested Thrasher in March.

“As a member of Thrasher’s dissertation committee, I was heartened that he had been independently nominated to serve in this capacity and happy to approve his selection, though precisely *because* he had been a student of mine, I never would have suggested it myself,” Harper wrote. “Given this connection–and my prior request to him–you can imagine my chagrin and outrage upon hearing the off-script comments that Thrasher made on Monday, which of course reflect his own opinions and not the position of GSAS.”

Harper then expressed “my deep apology for the fact that our ceremony and its audience were disrespected in this way.  The Graduate School’s commitment to fostering a strong ethos of community and collegiality remains as firm as ever, and we will work strenuously on this front in the months and years to come.”

Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and Provost Jonathan Holloway said in a May 24 statement that Thrasher will still be joining Northwestern’s Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications June 1.

“Many were understandably offended by some of the comments made by Dr. Thrasher during his commencement speech at New York University earlier this week,” Schapiro and Holloway wrote. “We do not share all of his views, nor do we feel commencement was the appropriate venue to express them. However, academic freedom assures his right to hold them.”

Schapiro and Holloway added that the university “unequivocally rejects BDS.”

Adela Cojab, who graduated from NYU earlier in the week and spearheaded a legal complaint against the university for giving SJP an award in April, told the Journal in a Facebook message, “About a month ago I filed my complaint with the Office of Civil Rights against NYU for their failure to act against escalating anti-Semitism. Since then, one of their departments has pledged to boycott Tel Aviv and a commencement speaker inappropriately expressed his support of SCA’s boycott and SJP’s aggressions. This is a pivotal moment— the administration can choose to make empty statements or finally take action. NYU, all eyes are on you.”

StandWithUs CEO and co-founder Roz Rothstein similarly said in a statement to the Journal, “NYU should have fully vetted this speaker, who has a clear record of spreading hate on social media. We urge them to change their procedures to ensure such extremism is not rewarded again in the future.”

Thrasher did not respond to the Journal’s request for comment.