Updated Dec. 29, 8:50 p.m.
University President Lee Bollinger said he opposes a recent boycott of Israeli universities by the American Studies Association in a statement released Friday.
“I reject the ASA’s position which would compromise an essential value of universities in an increasingly global society—and we look forward to continuing Columbia’s long history of engagement with our peers from Israel,” Bollinger said in a statement.
Barnard President Deborah Spar released a similar statement Sunday, which said she stood in “strong opposition to a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”
“All scholars have the right to speak out against issues or policies with which they disagree, but academic boycotts pose a threat to the intellectual exchange and open debate that sit at the very core of our educational mission,” Spar said.
Bollinger added that he has made his opposition to such boycotts “emphatically clear over the years,” citing a letter he authored in 2007, which was signed by 400 other academics, in opposition to the British University and College Union’s call to boycott Israeli universities.
“To be sure, it is entirely appropriate for our campuses to provide a forum for discussion and debate about the policies of any government, including our own,” Bollinger said. “But the ASA’s vote runs counter to this essential academic and political freedom and, taken to its logical conclusion, would necessarily result in boycotts of fellow scholars and peer institutions from many nations around the world.”
The American Studies Association, an academic organization focusing on scholars of American culture and history, called for a boycott during a Dec. 15 annual meeting to protest “the illegal occupation of Palestine, the infringements of the right to education of Palestinian students, and the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel,” according to the organization’s website.
Sixty-six percent of the 1,252 members participating in the election voted to endorse the boycott, while 31 percent voted against and 3 percent abstained.
As of Sunday, a change.org petition urging ASA members to support the boycott had garnered 615 signatures. Columbia has a number of professors that are members of ASA—though it’s unclear how many support the organization’s boycott.
A Nov. 15 letter penned by non-ASA American Studies academics opposing the then-proposed resolution was signed by several Columbia professors, including Acting Director of American Studies Casey N. Blake.
An academic boycott of Israeli universities is not new. The Association for Asian American Studies adopted a boycott in April, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association also announced its support for a boycott after the ASA resolution on Dec. 15.
Bollinger’s statement follows other university presidents who have denounced the action.
A New York Times article published Thursday quoted Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust, who said, “Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas, which is the lifeblood of the worldwide community of scholars.”
The article also quoted Wesleyan University President Michael S. Roth as saying that declaring “institutions off limits because of their national affiliations” is an affront to academic freedom.
Seffi Kogen, GS/JTS ’14 and outgoing president of Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said he supports Bollinger’s opposition.
He said that the boycott is “absurd, especially when one takes into account the fact that the strongest critics of problematic Israeli policies are often precisely those scholars the ASA’s resolution seeks to censure.”
SJP did not respond to requests for comment by press time.
Check back for updates.
Samantha Cooney contributed reporting.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that as of Friday, 612 of ASA's approximately 5000 members had signed a change.org petition. Those 612 signatures actually included non-ASA members as well. During the ASA's election, 66 percent of members present supported the boycott. Spectator regrets the error.