Academic Freedom Restricted in Name of Academic Freedom

CC Reuters

It takes a lot for the Association For Asian American Studies to make international headlines. The AAAS is a group of academics within the fields of Asian and Asian-American Studies who work to advance the fields of Asian Studies and Asian-American Studies. Not exactly the kind of organization regularly covered by CNN. A quick Google search of that organization, however, turns up myriad articles from the past few weeks. Last month, they became the first academic organization in the United States to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli universities — and they did so unanimously.

We have a few questions:

  • Why is an organization whose mission is to promote better understanding of “Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Hawai’ian, Southeast Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander, and other groups,” according to their website, taking a stance on Israel-Palestine?
  • How did a large group of scholars unanimously agree on anything, let alone something so controversial?
  • And how does the AAAS reconcile support for “the protected rights of students and scholars everywhere to engage in research and public speaking about Israel-Palestine” with advocacy work making that engagement more difficult for students and scholars in at Israeli universities (which, last we checked, are part of “everywhere”)?

We can find some possible answers to the first question from past articles in the Journal of Asian American Studies, produced by the AAAS. One 2006 issue was devoted entirely to articles discussing Israel-Palestine and questions of anti-Arab discrimination in the United States. Sunaina Maira and Magid Shihade, in one article, discuss why there should be efforts in academia to “connect anti-Zionism in the context of Middle East politics to anti-racist and anti-imperialist movements in the U.S. and Asia,” and characterizes Israel as engaging in “ethnic cleansing.” They got just what they wished for with this resolution.

While that interest is clearly an ideological one, there may also be a less principled reason for this endorsement. The classic aphorism that “any publicity is good publicity” may have been a major factor. The humanities are losing funding at universities around the country, and students are often opting to go with more “practical” majors, and organizations like this one may feel that any opportunity for name-recognition could be a possible remedy to those issues. What message does it send, though, that the AAAS jumps at the chance to take a stance with regard to Israel-Palestine but does little to promote issues of relevance to the groups explicitly part of their field of study? Korea has certainly made some headlines lately, and advocacy on behalf of Korean-Americans who may be experiencing discrimination would seem pretty logical for an organization like this. Perhaps they should focus their efforts on platforms of that nature. 

The second question is a particularly interesting one. It turns out that, while unanimous, only 10% of the AAAS’s membership voted for this measure, with 90% abstaining or not present at the vote. While we could not find the precise size of the organization’s membership body, 10% of it is likely a pretty small number. This organization’s choice to emphasize the “unanimous” nature of the vote, while the vast majority of its members did not have a say, might not be a blatant lie, but it certainly seems a bit disingenuous.

The final question is the most important one. The organization claims to respect academic freedom for students and professors everywhere, but simultaneously has created a resolution that restricts the ability of Israeli students and professors to partner with foreign Professors. Eleven professors at Hebrew University alone teach classes whose primary subject matter is South or East Asia. What might this endorsement mean for Asian Studies concentrators who want to study abroad in Israel? What might it mean for members of the AAAS whose research projects might logically take them to Israel? Will they sacrifice those projects, despite the positive contributions they could make to the field? It seems that the AAAS perceived Israeli Universities as restricting academic freedom, and their solution was to further restrict academic freedom. That does not seem like a particularly helpful answer to the problem.

As college students, it is sometimes a bit annoying when we hear about how our Professor will be gone for two weeks in some foreign land to attend a conference of big-wig academics. But it seems like those opportunities are ones that can benefit the individual professors, our academic departments, and Universities in general. The AAAS has endorsed a policy that would deter individuals from taking on those opportunities, and whose ramifications could affect students directly as well. We hope that other associations actively choose not to follow their example, because doing so could have a detrimental effect on American universities.

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