President Peggy R. Williams responded last Tuesday to concerns of alumni and members of the Ithaca College community that she did not oppose a proposed boycott of Israeli academic institutions.
In an announcement on Intercom, the college’s online information Web site, Williams defended her decision to decline to join hundreds of other college presidents around the country in publicly denouncing the proposed boycott.
Earlier this year, members of the University and College Union (UCU), a 116,000-member organization of British academics, proposed boycotting Israeli academic institutions, arguing that “Israel’s 40-year occupation has seriously damaged the fabric of Palestinian society” through acts of discrimination and oppression. On May 30, the UCU voted to continue to debate the issue until bringing it to a vote in November.
In response to the UCU’s proposal, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, wrote a statement condemning the suggestion of a boycott on Israel. When Bollinger’s statement was adopted by other college and university presidents, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) agreed to administrate the public statement, said Kenneth Stern, director on anti-Semitism and extremism for the AJC.
Stern said the next step was to make more institutions aware of the issue and the opportunity to join Bollinger’s statement, which would run as an advertisement in the New York Times on Aug. 8.
“An e-mail was sent to 2,125 college presidents including every president that presided over a four-year college,” he said. “I can’t vouch that every president saw it … but I know that the list was comprehensive, and it was sent out the first time toward the end of June.”
Mark Weiss ’75, a member of the AJC, said the organization sent its members a copy of the ad on Aug. 6., which included more than 300 names. Weiss said he was surprised the college wasn’t listed and said he sent an e-mail to Williams to find out why and to inform her of her opportunity to add her name.
“I fully expected to see Ithaca College when I looked at the ad,” he said.
Williams said she was not originally aware of the college’s opportunity to sign on. When it was brought to her attention, she said she was hesitant to involve the college because of unclear language used in the ad, specifically a phrase from Bollinger that the UCU would “advance a boycott.”
Williams’ next step was to contact UCU to inquire about the details of the situation.
“I just tried to find out what that meant,” she said. “But it’s up for lots of interpretations.”
Weiss said at this time, more than 400 presidents have signed on with the AJC. He also found an online petition against the boycott signed by 52 Nobel Laureates, including the Dalai Lama, who will visit the college in October.
“At this point, more than 400 presidents had no problem with the language,” Weiss said. “Fifty-two Nobel Laureates had no problem with the language. Granted, [Williams] has her opinion, but I find it rather lame.”
Williams wrote directly to Sally Hunt, the general secretary of UCU, and explained that while she had decided not to join AJC in “condemning” the actions of Hunt’s organization, she was strongly concerned by the course of events. Williams encouraged UCU to debate the issue until its Nov. 30 vote.
“Should the UCU determine that a boycott is the only course of action, I will reassess my decision at that time,” she said.
Stern said he respected Williams’ decision; however, he said he disagrees with Williams in her assessment that the UCU is simply planning to debate the issue.
“The language that they are using is packed text, accusing Israelis of all sorts of crimes,” he said.
Williams said her decision not to include the college in an objection to boycott Israeli academia did not come with ethical implications.
“I think people who signed [the objection] probably think they did something ethical,” she said. “To me it’s about clarity, people’s understanding of what happened, my understanding of what happened and what the language of the ad says.”
Williams explained her decision to Weiss in a reply e-mail Aug. 17, nine days after the AJC ad appeared and 11 days after Weiss’ initial inquiry.
Weiss said he was disappointed that the response took so long and also at Williams’ decision.
“There comes a time when you need to stand up and say, this is what I believe,” he said. “When it came time to stand up, Ithaca College … remained seated.”
On July 3, David J. Skorton, president of Cornell University, announced in a press release that the institution would not support a boycott of Israeli academia. His name and institution were listed in the Aug. 8 AJC advertisement. Other college presidents that chose to join Bollinger’s statement include leaders from Princeton University, Dartmouth College and Pennsylvania State University.
Michael Faber, Jewish chaplain at the college, said the Hillel executive board also contacted Williams about the boycott during the summer. He said he thought the president’s decision was well thought out and researched.
“She thinks that in the best spirit of academia, that’s the way it should be,” he said.
Faber said he is concerned, however, with the president’s invitation for the UCU to continue to discuss the issue of a boycott of Israel. He said that a boycott would mean the end of all exchange between Britain and Israel, a nation whose main resource is its brainpower.
“I don’t think this is a debatable issue,” he said. “I think it’s an absurd thing to debate. Just as absurd as debating if the Holocaust existed.”
Williams said she would have a hard time telling a group of academics not to debate a certain topic.
“It seems to me that’s what academic freedom is all about. We don’t tell students on campus they can’t talk about horrible things,” she said. “We should be trying to influence the outcome of the debate, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Stern said although the UCU is a new organization, they aren’t devoid of precedent, which Williams is not taking into consideration.
“The record of what they’ve done and the plain text of what they’re proposing and how they voted on this shows this isn’t merely an abstract thing,” he said. “It’s much more pernicious given the history.”
In her correspondence with Hunt, Williams said a final decision by the UCU to boycott Israeli academia would force her to reconsider her position. She said any action the college might take would depend on the specific implications of a boycott.
“We don’t know what they are going to do,” she said. “I don’t think it would be helpful to say what we’re going to do ignorant of that.”
Stern said the problem is the UCU is proposing to shut out a group of academics based on nationality.
“It’s a debate that they can have, but it’s the responsibility of people to recognize that it’s something that promotes bigotry,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon others to point it out other than say well let’s see how this turns out.”