A Further Response on the Application of Academic Freedom

In an essay last month on Social Science Space, I pointed out the hypocrisy of activists who demand maximum academic freedom for themselves while at the same time promoting a boycott of Israeli institutions (BDS) that would limit the academic freedom of many others. The example I offered was Prof. Dan Segal of Pitzer College, who wrote a post on the AAUP’s Academe Blog bemoaning his investigation by the college for “harassment on the grounds of sex/gender [and] ancestry,” in which he was ultimately cleared. Segal persuasively argued that lengthy investigations into meritless claims can erode academic freedom by discouraging candid discussions in the classroom. My essay agreed with Segal’s view that “academic freedom protections shield all conduct and speech made in the delivery of legitimate course content” (italics Segal’s).

The hypocrisy, however, was evident in a post on Segal’s personal blog, where he objected to a course offering at Canada’s McMaster University – “The Beginning of Science: Ancient Egyptian and Babylonian Conception of Space and Time” – because it was co-taught by an Israeli professor in conjunction with Tel Aviv University. “Virtual or online educational partnerships,” he said, “deserve our boycott as much as those that happen in person.”

Segal has now posted on open letter, also on Social Science Space, complaining falsely that I misrepresented his views. I have therefore copied Segal’s key paragraphs below, with my own responses in italics.

A Response to ‘When Academic Freedom Proves a One-Way Street’

Published on 11/23/2021 By Dan A. Segal

I appreciate being read, but do not appreciate being misread.

I do not hold, and actively oppose, many of the views you, Professor Lubet, have projected on to me in “When Academic Freedom Proves a One-Way Street.” The positions I articulated in the blog entry you discuss involve no objections to Pitzer or McMaster hiring Professor Eshbal Ratson for a position for which she is fully qualified and the best available candidate. Full stop. Contrary to what you have claimed about my views, I do not support barriers to hiring an individual on the basis of their “nationality” or any other factor unrelated to their being qualified for a given position.

Segal magnanimously allows that Prof. Ratson should be eligible for a faculty appointment in Canada if she is willing to quit her current position and leave her home. As long as she remains affiliated with Tel Aviv University, however, he insists that she should not be permitted to co-offer a class with a colleague at McMaster. This alone is a restraint on the academic freedom of both Prof. Ratson and Prof. Symons, the faculty member at McMaster, because it prevents them from fully cooperating – in Segal’s own words, on “the delivery of legitimate course content” – for the benefit of students at both universities.

Segal’s claim that Ratson could still figure out some way to teach at McMaster is the equivalent of the Red State legislators who defend the hours-long lines at the polls in Democratic districts. People can still vote if they try hard enough; they just have to endure onerous conditions and overcome obstacles if they hope to do it.

The Palestinian BDS campaign—which I proudly support—is clear that it embraces academic freedom and rejects boycotting individual scholars. It calls instead for opposing institutional relationships with Israeli universities (italics Segal’s).

That is indeed what the BDS movement claims. Even if true – and there are numerous cases where boycotters have gone much further, including the rejection of journal submissions by Israeli authors – it is still a restraint on academic freedom. As I clearly recognized in my essay, “Segal does not advocate totally obliterating the academic freedom of the two professors.” A significant constraint on academic freedom is still objectionable, however, even if it leaves open a hypothetical possibility that the boycotted academics can find a viable work-around. In the world of free speech scholarship, we call that a burden on the exercise of a fundamental right, and we do not like it.

I ask that you reread—slowly, carefully, and closely—my blog post on the McMaster case. And I hope that when you do, you will recognize an ethical obligation to correct, publicly, your mistaken claims about my views.

Segal’s condescension aside, I read his blog post thoroughly and summarized it accurately, with appropriate quotations. As I explained in detail above, it is quite apparent that he does not believe in full academic freedom for Israeli scholars, or for North American academics who want to work with them. He is disingenuously unwilling to come out and say it.

The hypocrisy of Segal’s position is that he simultaneously demands the broadest version of academic freedom for himself, claiming that enduring even the slightest hesitation is a violation of his rights. “I know that this experience [the investigation, in which he was completely exonerated] has impacted my teaching,” Segal explained in his Academe Blog post. In some class sessions, he continued, “it has led me to ‘not go there,’ that is, to not explore certain examples or lines of thought that I otherwise would—and should—have pursued.” Thus, academic freedom must be as expansive as possible for the right people (Segal) and sharply curtailed for the wrong people (Israelis).

It is a considerable difference between us that I was raised to think that if one writes a criticism of someone else, one should share that criticism with the person one is criticizing—as a matter of both respectful candor and a commitment to robust dialogue and debate (the very goals of academic freedom and speech rights!). 

I do not doubt that Segal had quite an excellent childhood, but it evidently did not include instruction in journalism’s ethics. If I had reported a negative fact about Segal, I certainly would have contacted him for a response. There is no similar convention for opinion pieces, either before or after publication. In just this year, I have written critically about the president of the University of Florida, a Texas congressman and a Missouri senator, a Canadian psychiatrist, a dean at the Yale Law School, and several SCOTUS justices, among others. I did not send my essays to any of them (or to the many people whom I praised), and nobody but Segal has ever complained about it.

Segal’s declared “commitment to robust dialogue and debate” is as insubstantial as his faux respect for academic freedom. In fact, Segal boasts in his bio that he is “proud to serve” in the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), an organization that specifically opposes all participation in academic activities such as “events, projects, or publications that are designed explicitly to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation.” Not much dialogue; plenty of hypocrisy.

This time, of course, I will be sure to send it to him.

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Steven Lubet

Steven Lubet is Williams Memorial Professor at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and author of Interrogating Ethnography: Why Evidence Matters, and other books such as 2015's The “Colored Hero” Of Harper’s Ferry: John Anthony Copeland And The War Against Slavery and Lawyers' Poker: 52 Lessons That Lawyers Can Learn From Card Players. He is the director of the Fred Bartlit Center for Trial Advocacy. He has been living with ME/CFS since 2006.

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Daniel Segal

There’s a blooper in the next to last paragraph of Steven Lubet’s post above. He writes: “In fact, Segal boasts in his bio that he is ‘proud to serve’ in the organizing collective for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), an organization that specifically opposes all participation in academic activities such as ‘events, projects, or publications that are designed explicitly to bring together Palestinians/Arabs and Israelis so they can present their respective narratives or perspectives, or to work toward reconciliation.’ Not much dialogue; plenty of hypocrisy.” I do proudly serve on the organizing collective of… Read more »

Daniel Segal

Steve Lubet thinks an institutional boycott of academic institutions is incompatible with academic freedom. I know a number of colleagues who hold this position out of a principled commitment to academic freedom, not because they are apologists for Israeli state apartheid and ethnic cleansing–and I greatly respect that principled disagreement with support for institutional boycotts, even as I disagree with it and proudly and fiercely support both BDS and academic freedom. That said, rather than presenting a reasoned argument for why an institutional boycott is incompatible with academic freedom, and then saying that I hold inconsistent views, Lubet assumes the… Read more »

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