Academic Freedom

NYC Pols Threaten Brooklyn College Funding Over BDS Panel

Amy Schiller on the growing campaign against a controversial panel sponsored by Brooklyn College's political science department.

Evan Vucci / AP Photo

MSNBC host Chris Hayes predicted the “outrageous and outright chilling” scenario that Brooklyn College now finds itself in over the panel of speakers representing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. In a statement made on the February 3 episode of Up With Chris, the progressive host said politicians "line up to attempt to force an academic institution to cancel an event particularly when some of those politicians… actually determine the budget of the institution. Think of the precedent being set here.”

That threat is no longer hypothetical, and the power that politicians have over Brooklyn College’s budget is far from abstract. Members of the New York City Council have sent a letter to the College’s president threatening to pull funding based on their disagreements with the views of the invited panelists.

“We are asking you to either cancel this event or, if it should take place, then to remove your school’s official support for it," says the the letter, authored by Lew Fielder, Assistant Majority Leader, and signed by nine other council members. "We believe in the principle of academic freedom. However, we also believe principle of not supporting schools whose programs we, and our constituents, find to be odious and wrong." In other words, academic freedom, but only for ideas that elected officials agree with.

Brooklyn College President Karen Gould stood firm in her defense of not only the event taking place but of the political science department’s right to co-sponsor it. In her statement released today, she underscored that co-sponsoring the invitation to appear on campus was not, as many have suggested, tantamount to endorsement of the views held by the speaker: “Providing an open forum to discuss important topics, even those many find highly objectionable, is a centuries-old practice on university campuses around the country. Indeed, this spirit of inquiry and critical debate is a hallmark of the American education system.“ In other words, academic freedom.

Hayes put it succingly in his on-air statement: “The whole idea of academic freedom is to discuss ideas that may be viewed with contempt by the political mainstream.”

As prominent New Yorkers bid farewell to former mayor Ed Koch at his funeral today, the nostalgia trip to New York mayors past extended to Rudy Guiliani, courtesy of Glenn Greenwald’s column in the Guardian, who invoked Giuliani’s threats to pull funding from the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 over an exhibition featuring a portrait of the Virgin Mary stained with elephant dung. Giuliani threatened to "do everything that we can to remove funding for the Brooklyn Museum until the director comes to his senses and realizes that if you are a government-subsidized enterprise, then you can't do things that desecrate the most personal and deeply held views of people in society." But a judge ordered the Mayor to quit his attacks: "There is no federal constitutional issue more grave than the effort by government officials to censor works of expression and to threaten the vitality of a major cultural institution as punishment for failing to abide by governmental demands for orthodoxy."

The quality of debate may indeed have benefited from the presence of anti-BDS speakers—as critics suggest—if only to enrich the arguments being made by Butler and Barghouti. Yet the whole incident demonstrates that “governmental demands for orthodoxy” are par for the course when it comes to discussions of Israel. Look no further than Hagel’s confirmation hearings for evidence. At Brooklyn College, the local stakes simply make the levers of power easier to trace.