ALAN WOLFE APRIL 29, 2009
William I. Robinson teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Describing himself as a "scholar-activist" on his website, Robinson deals with recent economic trends such as globalization. He does so in a manner reminiscent of the leftism once so popular in the 1970s as if, no matter how much the world changes, academic fads should never go out of style. I try to keep abreast with the field of sociology; Robinson is not a name that would appear on any list I would make of its most distinguished practitioners.
In January, Robinson sent an email to the students in his "Sociology of Globalization" course. In it he accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza, drew analogies between the Israeli occupation of the area to the Warsaw Ghetto, and included photographs comparing Israeli actions in the region to the actions the Nazis had taken against the Jews. Some students complained. The Anti-Defamation League has called for an investigation. UCSB's response has been to say that an investigation is already underway. Many faculty have sent letters of protest arguing that Robinson's academic freedom is being abridged. On the contrary, say his critics: Robinson went way beyond his academic responsibilities by sending propagandistic emails to his students on a subject that had nothing to do with his academic interests.
For me, this is an open and shut case. Neither Robinson's leftist kind of sociology nor his activist kind of politics are mine. Yet the idea of investigating him is appalling and the ADL should be ashamed of itself. Precedents are being set in this case that could have serious ramifications for everyone teaching in public universities--and perhaps even private ones.
We ought to want professors in our universities who teach about controversial subjects to provoke, and even outrage, their students. We should be pleased that they care enough about the issues of the day and about what students believe to send emails to them when things happen in the world that bear on the major issues of the day. Academic apathy is a serious problem. No one could ever accuse William Robinson of that.
At the same time, we should be wary of anyone who views the university not as a place for the exchange of ideas, but as an environment for therapeutic self-affirmation. "This professor should be stopped immediately from continuing to disseminate this information and be punished because his damage is irreversible," one unnamed UCSB student argued. Nonsense. Whatever damage words and pictures can do is out-weighed by the arguments and discussion they provoke. This student was angry. That was the point. The idea that Robinson caused some kind of irreversible damage here is preposterous. Seeking to punish him is even worse.
The ADL operates at the same level of this confused student. The director of its Santa Barbara office described Robinson's comparisons as "offensive" and claimed that writing to students is "intimidating." But there can be little doubt who is trying to intimidate here. The ADL's mission is to protect us against the hatred of anti-Semitism. Once upon it time it believed that the best way to do so was to call for open discussion on the grounds that minorities subject to majority stereotyping benefit most when the intellectual air is free. Now it has become part and parcel of the thought police, monitoring campuses for any sign of what it considers offensive speech and putting pressure to bear on university administrators to stop it. We now have a world in which Catholics try to prevent Barack Obama from receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame while the ADL leads similar campaigns against Desmond Tutu speaking at North Carolina. This is the kind of ecumenicalism we do not need.
A Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB has been formed and it includes a protest against Robinson's treatment from Noam Chomsky. I almost never find myself in agreement with my fellow alum of Philadelphia's Central High School. But I would be dismayed if only those protesting the ADL's actions in the Robinson case were those who shared his political views.
There are all too many inquisitors out there in the world opposing this or that speaker or campus, watching what professors are saying; in my own neighborhood, Clark University considered cancelling a speech by Norman Finkelstein while Boston College did cancel one by Bill Ayers. This whole business is threatening to spin out of control. Those of us who once opposed the smug political correctness of the academic left ought to be just as opposed to the new version of political correctness adopted by the ADL and its supporters.