The Chronicle Review

Now, More Than Ever, Scholarly Groups Must Engage in the Political Arena

March 06, 2017

Since I am only familiar with his work on American poetry and cultural studies, I did not realize that Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors, is a member of the Middle East Studies Association. But, then, last week I received an email from him encouraging me, "as a fellow MESA member," to vote against a proposal to remove the word "non-political" from the association’s bylaws.

That vote, which closes on March 15, will also determine if the association adds a clause reaffirming its commitment to operate "in accordance with its status as a 501(c)(3) scientific, educational, literary, and charitable organization." Even though the word "non-political" does not appear in the bylaws of most academic associations in the United States, Nelson believes that the "transformation of MESA into a political, rather than academic, organization will have multiple consequences," as he wrote in an email inviting me to sign an open letter recommending against the change.

I have never met Nelson in person. However, in 2009 I benefited from his support. At the time, he defended my academic freedom when I was being subjected to personal attacks from my own university and Israel’s minister of education after I criticized Israel’s policies toward the colonized Palestinians. "The notion," Nelson wrote, "that a political scientist cannot combine academic arguments with conclusions, theory with advocacy, strikes at the heart of the principle that academics have the right to advise the public and seek an impact on public policy."

Citing Matthew W. Finkin and Robert C. Post’s book, For the Common Good: Principles of American Academic Freedom (Yale University Press, 2009), Nelson went on to claim that "faculty speech in scholarly venues and in the classroom cannot be protected (and cannot fully serve society) if faculty members are not also free to deploy their expertise in the public sphere without fear of government or university reprisal." Nelson concluded: "As a political scientist who writes about Israeli policy, [Gordon] has a disciplinary justification to offer advice and opinion in the public sphere."

People, no doubt, change their minds, but in this case it’s as if Nelson pines for a time when politics and scholarship were separate. Or at least segregated. The scenario he imagines is about as real and desirable as the idea of making America great again.

Notwithstanding the existing wording of the bylaws, MESA has been political for quite a while, and perhaps since its inception. Consider MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom, which speaks up on behalf of scholars, teachers, and students throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and North America. The committee has written scores of letters over the past 15 years to support a broad and vigorous sense of academic freedom. Is it not already "political" to take a public stance against states, governments, and institutions that violate academic freedom? And what about the newly established Task Force on Civil and Human Rights? As these two committees indicate, MESA is already engaged in work that might fairly be called "political."

Particularly in the age of Trump, it is paramount that faculty and academic institutions enter the political arena.
In an open letter supporting the change in the bylaws, 12 former MESA presidents explain that "rather than protecting our status, [the word "non-political"] leaves us more vulnerable than the rest of our peer organizations" since it threatens the association’s legal standing when it intervenes in political debates or when it responds to the arrest and intimidation of Turkish, Kurdish, Egyptian, Iranian, Bahraini, and other academics.

The vote to erase the word "non-political" is, of course, not only motivated by the desire to guarantee that the bylaws will finally concur with the association’s existing operations and therefore protect its legal standing, but is also — and importantly — a normative stance about what MESA should do.

Elyse Semerdjian from Whitman College, who has been a MESA member for more than 20 years, explains that since 9/11, scholars of the Middle East have spent a great deal of time thinking about and acting on issues of academic freedom, civil rights, and human rights in the United States and abroad. "We do this," she says, "as an extension of our academic work in order to protect our workspace by speaking out on behalf of vulnerable colleagues who live and work in conflict zones. This work, which has come natural to us as an organization, certainly cannot be construed as apolitical. However, this work is, and should be, advocacy work to protect academic freedom (in all its forms, including speech we find morally repugnant), because our colleagues look to us when they are wrongfully fired, imprisoned, attacked, and bombed."

Particularly in the age of Trump, in which concrete threats to academic freedoms are likely to increase, it is paramount that faculty and academic institutions, ranging from universities to professional associations, enter the political arena. This is exactly what the presidents of 48 colleges and universities did when President Trump issued the executive order banning Muslims. They did not hesitate to take a clear political stand against the order. This kind of advocacy is absolutely vital if we are to sustain the intellectual creativity and indeed the raison d’être of universities and research.

Does Nelson really believe that scholarly organizations in general should sit quietly as the scope of free inquiry is attacked? Or does he have particular reservations about this professional association? He stands in defense of a long-debunked notion of objective scholarship, which ultimately translates into an abdication of our professional and moral responsibility. But surrender, not least to the powers that be, is also a political act.

Neve Gordon is a visiting professor in the department of politics and international studies at SOAS, University of London.