President’s Perspective: Academic Freedom

Randy J. Dunn

Randy J. Dunn

By Randy J. Dunn


If you have been following the academic press closely over the past few weeks, you know well that the topic of academic freedom has been front-and-center in light of calls for a boycott or ban of Israeli higher education institutions by the American Studies Association. Then the Modern Language Association, meeting in early January, decided to dip its toe in the water too, by endorsing a resolution to protest Israeli travel restrictions to Palestinian universities on the West Bank.

YSU had received only one statewide media inquiry in the wake of the ASA and MLA actions regarding the stance of our University, though I never ended up finding a story published based upon the collective reactions from campuses across Ohio. However, numerous public and private schools in the state did weigh in to condemn the actions. I replied that Youngstown State is no longer an institutional member of the ASA – but if we were, we wouldn’t be supporting the Association nor joining the ban. Personally, I think the ASA was wrong for ever taking this on for the simple reason that an academic boycott is fundamentally at odds with just about any accepted definition of academic freedom. Academic boycotting – whether against Israeli scholars and institutions, or some other group next time – is pretty tough to defend in any circumstance since its pursuit is counterintuitive to the very notions of academic freedom its proponents purport to promote.

All of us who attend conferences in our discipline or show up at the annual meetings of our respective learned societies know that these things can go off the rails and sometimes get a little insidious. In one commentary I ran across following the MLA meeting, Amy Schwartz – an MLA member who had previously taught at Northwestern – reminds us that this is not the first time that those of us who are professors have seen a small cadre of rampaging members of an academic society “intent on politicizing…[an] event and taking advantage of the membership’s general lack of awareness to foist a wholly non-academic issue to the forefront.”

At this stage, the boycott movement has received discredit in academic circles by strong voices from such highly respected groups as the American Association of Universities, the American Association of University Professors and others. Significant higher education institutions and individual scholars are speaking out where they have influence.

So the question you have at this point may be this one: Why bother to wade into the water on this topic now? There are probably three reasons as I thought about it for the column this time. As a university president, I feel some moral imperative to speak out in support of academic freedom whenever I have the opportunity, especially in the wake of events – like a boycott – which I believe are corrosive to such freedom. As well, YSU, Youngstown and the Valley are home to vibrant and engaged Jewish communities, and I decided I owe it to that constituency, and any others here at the University who are following these developments, to describe my thoughts in a clear and direct manner. Finally, it may be the case that we have not seen the end of these kinds of  “campaigns” both in and out of academic circles, and we should be clear that Youngstown State will hold no quarter with those groups which might continue to promote them.

I am not an international scholar. I acknowledge that multiple viewpoints exist on any political solution to Israeli-Palestinian relations. But we all know this: Whatever happens to promote peace in the region will only come about through open and unfettered discussions, free exchanges of ideas and options, and a framework of collaboration and education. Academic boycotts do nothing to support those goals.