Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Defending Academic Freedom

Below is a letter, to which I am a signatory, defending Professor David Shorter at UCLA against recent attacks. The details are contained in the letter and in the embedded links, but in short, he was reprimanded for including a link to an organization critical of Israel on his course website, and asked to promise not to post the link again. After the text of our letter, I am including links to background information and other letters of support, for your information. This is an insidious attack, one which we must broadly expose and defend against, because it attempts to prevent access to information about divergent viewpoints at a public university.


Mark Yudof, President, University of California
Dr. Andrew Leuchter, Chair, UCLA Academic Senate

Dear President Yudof and Dr. Leuchter,

We, the Graduate Student Organization of the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance (WAC/D GSO), would like to express our concern for and solidarity with our faculty colleague, Associate Professor David Delgado Shorter. In our view, the recent questioning of Dr. Shorter’s teaching methods has raised serious concerns about academic policies and pedagogical freedom at the University of California. The class in question is “Tribal Worldviews”, which Professor Shorter taught in the Winter Quarter of 2012. This course explored indigenous worldviews in relation to colonialism, globalization, and media from a variety of interdisciplinary approaches and cross-cultural analysis. The course has been offered for three years and this last quarter happened to include a website critical of Israel within a long list of optional research materials for several other topics in the seminar. 

The AMCHA Initiative, a group that "endeavors to inform the California Jewish community about manifestations of harassment and intimidation of Jewish students on colleges and university campuses" lodged a complaint to the University of California administrators and faculty. AMCHA contended that Dr. Shorter’s actions amounted to the promotion and advocacy of a boycott of Israel. On April 20th the organization stated on its website that they had “achieved an important victory” based on the response from UC administrators regarding their complaint which implied that Dr Shorter had in fact committed an error in judgment and would not repeat the mistake. The AMCHA article spoke of Dr. Shorter as being among UC faculty “who use their classroom and university resources for anti-Israel proselytizing.” We find such a statement to be patently misleading and the actions of the UC administration in this matter a betrayal of the principles of academic freedom within the University of California system.

The inappropriate and short-sighted reaction to this incident by UC Administrators, whose job it is to protect and encourage pedagogical innovation is alarming. Dr. Shorter's insightful and provocative approach to learning gives primacy to the development of students' ability to engage in rigorous critical analysis and intellectual self-reflection important for creating substantive solutions to seemingly intractable, real-world issues, such as the rights of indigenous cultures. 

The key rationale for the University's criticism is the fact that Dr. Shorter is a signatory to the advocacy group whose website he listed. This site, however, was an optional resource for an optional assignment, and at no time did Dr. Shorter advocate for support of the website’s political group. More importantly, this logic entirely evades the fundamental issue of whether or not study of divergent or even controversial political views positively cultivates intelligent and rational consideration of the relevant issues of the course, which Dr. Shorter has kept open for debate over the three years in which he has taught the class.

As you know, the press has now taken this story national, primarily because of how this case reflects on the very function of our institution. In reaction to the controversy, Salon.com columnist Glenn Greenwald plainly and insightfully pointed to the case’s central issue as it relates to the broader populace:

“My real question is this: what kind of person goes to an academic institution and then demands to be shielded from political ideas that they find objectionable? Of all places, academia is supposed to permit and encourage the challenging of one’s assumptions and beliefs. At least in theory, that’s the prime value of studying at a university: learning how to think critically, which requires subjecting one’s views to rigorous dispute. The petulant entitlement needed to demand that nobody in that setting ever cite or mention objectionable political views is just staggering; it also reveals a severe lack of confidence in the validity of one’s own views.”

As emerging scholars we are particularly alarmed by the inappropriate handling of the matter as the difficult economic climate in the State of California has challenged the core principals of higher learning, knowledge production, and civic engagement. We are witnessing these values, the very principles upon which the University of California was founded, being relentlessly eviscerated by the rapid corporatization and authoritarian paradigm being foisted upon the UC system and the hundreds of thousands of students and employees who give the system its true social value and are the very raison d’etre of the system itself.

As graduate students deeply committed to academic freedom and these core principles, we steadfastly support Dr. Shorter in his stand against any and all efforts to censor his coursework or denigrate his tireless efforts to improve the quality of learning at UCLA and beyond and we join the California Scholars for Academic Freedom in insisting upon an official review of the inappropriate way in which UCLA’s academic leaders handled this matter.


Members and alumni of the Graduate Student Organization of the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance

Lorena Alvarado 
Samuel M. Anderson                       
Jacinta Arthur de la Maza           
Feriyal Aslam                                   
Emily Beattie 
Harmony Bench (alumna) 
April Rose Burnam 
Rosemary Candelario (alumna)
Alissa Cardone (alumna)
I-Wen Chan
Chey Chankethya
Deborah Cohen                       
Anna Creagh          
Alison D’Amato                       
Jennifer Monique Delgado
Sharna Fabiano
Cesar Garcia
Doran George                     
Maria Gillespie (alumna)         
Peter Haffner
William Michael Jelani Hamm
Mana Hayakawa
Claudia Hernandez
Elyan Hill
Ana Paula Hofling
Sarah Jacobs
Neelima Jeychandran
Sarah Leddy
Cynthia Ling Lee (alumna)
Dana Lea Marterella
Andy Martinez
Leonard Melchor
Carol McDowell
Olive Mckeon
Meena Murugesan                  
Nguyen Nguyen                                               
Lorenzo Perillo                                          
Jose Reynoso
Cristina Rosa (alumna)
Cedar Bough Saeji
Michael Sakamoto
Mathew Sandoval
Carolina San Juan (alumna)
Carl Schottmiller
Angeline Shaka (alumna)
Yehuda Sharim
Joseph Small
Alexandra Shilling
Pallavi Sriram
ล ara Stranovsky
Elaine Sullivan
Rita Valente                                                  
Andrea Wang
Sarah Wilbur           
Alessandra Williams
Kat Williams
Sara Wolf                                             
Allison Wyper (alumna)


‘California Scholars for Academic Freedom’ challenges UCLA on censure of prof who linked to BDS website
Native American and Indigenous Studies Scholars defend UCLA Professor David Shorter and supporters of BDS
Open Letter from the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel


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