SPME Commends Kent State President, Admonishes AAUP President

CHICO, Calif., Nov. 2, 2011 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international grass roots academic network of more than 50,000 academics on 4,000 campuses, commends Kent State University President Lester A. Lefton but admonishes American Association of University Professors (AAUP) President Cary Nelson for their respective responses to the October 25, 2011 incident in which a faculty member verbally attacked a visiting foreign lecturer at Kent State.

Kent State Professor Julio Pino allegedly accused guest speaker Ishmael Khaldi of condoning the killing of Palestinian children, and shouted “Death to Israel,” as he left the lecture hall. Khaldi was speaking about his background as a Bedouin shepherd who became a deputy consul of Israel and an advisor to Israel’s foreign minister.

Although conceding that it “may have been Professor Pino’s right to” shout at Kent State’s foreign guest in this manner, President Lefton asserted that “it is my obligation, as the president of this university, to say that I find his words deplorable, and his behavior deeply troubling.”

President Lefton commendably explained why Professor Pino’s behavior was inconsistent with basic values of academic discourse: “We value critical thinking at this university, and encourage students to engage with ideas that they find difficult or make them uncomfortable. We hope that our faculty will always model how best to combine passion for one’s position with respect for those with whom we disagree. Calling for the destruction of the state from which our guest comes (as do some of our students, faculty and community members) is a grotesque failure to model these values.”

However, SPME deplores Professor Cary Nelson’s comment (in Inside Higher Ed) on President Lefton’s statement: “Calling out a political slogan during a question period falls well within the speech rights of any member of a university community,” he said. “Expressive outbursts do not substitute for rational analysis, but they have long played a role in our national political life. More surprising, to be sure, is President Lefton’s invention of an absurd form of hospitality: you must not question the moral legitimacy or the right to exist of a guest’s home country. Awareness of history would suggest such challenges are routine elements of international life.”

Professor Nelson’s reported remarks contradict his own organization’s classic 1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure, which recommended that professors “should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.” Professor Nelson appears to have forgotten that although freedom of speech is vital to the functioning of a democratic society, a standard of civil discourse is vital to the functioning of universities, as well as other institutions. (“Expressive outbursts” that include genocidal incitement may not lead to arrest, but in most workplaces those who direct such remarks at an honored guest endanger their jobs.)

In response to the degradation of civil discourse on the campus, especially with regard to debate on Israel, and to the increasingly frequent harassment and intimidation of pro-Israel and Jewish students and faculty, the SPME Legal Taskforce has produced a Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and the Freedom of Speech. It can be viewed at https://spme.net/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=8339.