By Henri Gendreau
Kenyon College withdrew its membership from the American Studies Association (ASA) Dec. 23 after the national academic organization adopted a resolution boycotting Israeli colleges and universities.
Now one of many colleges across the country to denounce the ASA’s decision, Kenyon has entered the divisive debate involving academic freedom and the politically charged Israel-Palestine conflict. Out of 1,252 voters of the ASA’s almost 5,000 members, nearly two-thirds endorsed the boycott, which originates out of a belief, among others, that Israeli institutions are “party to state policies that violate human rights,” the ASA’s website said. The vote was held late on Dec. 15 after the ASA National Council announced on Dec. 4 its support of such a boycott.
“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the ASA National Council wrote in a letter on the ASA’s website. Professor of American Studies Peter Rutkoff, who chairs Kenyon’s American Studies Department and who withdrew its membership, called the ASA’s decision “ill-considered.”
“I think they, the ASA leadership, have confused political criticism of a state policy with pressuring, even hurting, academic colleagues who may or may not have anything to do with that policy, indeed who may even share the same critique,” he wrote in an email to The Thrill.
On Dec. 23, President Sean Decatur weighed in on Kenyon’s decision not to support the boycott. “I cherish the concept of academic freedom, and I oppose the ASA boycott of Israel,” he wrote on his blog Notes from Ransom Hall. “We should not be shutting out one side or the other, but rather open ourselves to engage in meaningful, substantial dialogue on fundamental questions with all sides,” he added.
The New York Times referenced Decatur in its Dec. 26 coverage of the growing dissent, when it wrote that Decatur “rejected the idea of boycotting academic institutions ‘as a geopolitical tool,’” quoting from his blog. Despite the increasing number of colleges and universities opting out of the ASA’s membership, some Kenyon faculty members have endorsed the boycott as a crucial step to greater academic freedom.
In a Jan. 13 campus-wide email, Professor of English Janet McAdams said she opposes Kenyon’s decision to withdraw its membership.
“I write, as a faculty member of Kenyon’s American Studies Program, to clarify that the decision to end the College’s membership in the ASA was made not by the faculty of the program but by its chair, a decision later endorsed by President Decatur through his blog,” McAdams said.
“Contrary to the way the boycott has been depicted in the U.S. media, it applies exclusively to institutions, not to individuals,” she continued. “The boycott is in service to academic freedom, not in opposition to it, as one of its chief goals is to end the egregious conditions under which Palestinian scholars and students labor.”