American Studies Professors Resign in Protest

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By TYLER MARTINS
Editor-In-Chief
Published: November 5, 2014

 Six faculty members, all Jewish, resigned from Fordham’s American Studies program this summer, in protest against the program’s decision to take no action opposing a controversial resolution passed by the American Studies Association boycotting all Israeli academic institutions. (See sidebar on page 2 for more information.)

The six professors include Doron Ben-Atar, professor of history, who published his critique of the Fordham American Studies program in Tablet, a Jewish publication. Ben-Atar resigned from the program and vowed to “fight against it until it took a firm stand against bigotry,” Ben-Atar wrote. 

Daniel Soyer, professor of history, resigned from the program because the boycott is “a bad thing for Israel … a bad thing for the cause of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine … a violation of Academic Freedom and leads to all kinds of insidious ethnic and national discrimination,” he said. “It turns the field of American Studies into a partisan political camp rather than an academic discipline.” 

The other four faculty members, who declined to comment, are: Richard Fleisher and Jeffrey Cohen, professors of political science,  Elaine Crane, distinguished professor of history, and Saul Cornell, professor of history. 

The boycott will not affect the curriculum taught to American Studies majors. “Faculty are free, as ever, to teach whatever texts they wish to include and to cover whatever material they believe is relevant to their topics,” Micki McGee, director of the American Studies Program, said in a statement. “There is not a set national American Studies curriculum, so the boycott has little bearing on what is taught in American studies classrooms.” 

Glenn Hendler, chair of the English department and former director of the American Studies program, echoed McGee’s statement. “The boycott asserts only that the national American studies organization as an institution will not collaborate with state-funded Israeli institutions. I can’t imagine how that could affect students in the classroom,” Hendler said in an email. “It’s worth noting here that the only reason it has come to the attention of students at all is that Professor Ben-Atar has brought it to your attention.” 

It is not that Hendler believes students should not discuss the issues raised by the boycott, but that “there was and is no intention of making it a central topic in Fordham’s undergraduate American Studies major,” he said. 

For Soyer, however, the boycott could restrict access to good teachers and scholars and affect how American Studies is taught in the classroom. “It urges teachers of American studies to distort what they teach about American culture and politics,” Soyer said. 

According to Soyer, the boycott also damages the academic field. “You can see that it’s very controversial and has caused all sorts of very vitriolic disputes which don’t attract people to the field, don’t strengthen the field in terms of research of teaching.” 

Though McGee was disappointed that faculty members chose to show their opposition to the ASA by resigning from Fordham’s program, she does not believe that there will be a shortage of course offerings for American Studies majors. “Generally speaking, the Affiliated Faculty provide the courses that comprise the major and minor. But as we currently have 50 active faculty members, we do not anticipate that there will be a shortage of course offerings,” McGee said. 

McGee is also hopeful that the faculty that resigned from Fordham’s program will still offer cross-listed courses for American Studies students. “Certainly we anticipate that the majority of our colleagues would not want to do anything that would undermine educational opportunities for Fordham students, regardless of how passionately they may feel about the national association’s boycott resolution,” McGee said. 

In fact, some courses being taught by resigned faculty members are still cross-listed for American Studies, including Ben-Atar’s “History of U.S. Sexuality,” according to McGee and My.Fordham.edu. “These courses were cross-listed quite some time ago — before my directorship — and we have not removed the attribute since no faculty member has requested that their courses not be cross-listed,” McGee said. “It is important to remember that a faculty member does not need to be a member of the American Studies affiliated faculty to have courses cross-listed for the American Studies major or minor.” 

When asked what Soyer’s resignation meant for students in the classroom, he said the effects were limited. “It doesn’t affect how I teach anything,” Soyer said. “Neither the initial resolution nor my resignation mean anything for how I teach American history in the classroom.”  

For Hendler, these resignations will only impact students if the professors choose to. “If they choose to make their resignations damage student education by refusing to have their courses cross-listed by the program, then that’s their choice,” Hendler said. “I’ll regret that because I very much respect the teaching and scholarship of all those who resigned.”

Soyer has no intention of not offering courses cross-listed by the program. “I don’t know that I have any control over what gets cross-listed, so I don’t think it has that much of an effect on students,” Soyer said.

Timeline of the American Studies Association Resolution and Impact on Fordham:

On Oct. 13, 2014, Doron Ben-Atar, professor of history, published his account of being investigated for religious discrimination by Anastasia Coleman, director of the office of institutional equity and compliance and Title IX coordinator, because he vowed to fight the Fordham American Studies Program, which had decided not to withdraw from the national American Studies Association (ASA) after they voted in favor of an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. 

On Dec. 13, 2013, the ASA passed a resolution supporting an academic boycott of Israeli institutions which “endorses and will honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions,” the ASA said in a statement. 

On Dec. 27, 2013, Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, deplored the ASA’s resolution but took a stand in favor of faculty members’ academic freedom. “We believe that boycotts of this kind seriously undermine and hinder the efforts of any intellectual community to fulfill its mission in the service of wisdom and learning,” Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, said in a statement following the ASA’s resolution. However, McShane noted that Fordham “recognizes and reveres the freedom of conscience of the individual scholars who comprise its faculty” and that faculty members might have a different view on the boycott.

On Feb. 24, 2014, the Fordham American Studies program’s executive committee held a meeting for affiliated faculty to discuss how to respond to the ASA resolution, chaired by John Harrington, dean of Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH). The executive committees took no action in relation to the national organization. 

Ben-Atar opposed the program’s decision to remain neutral. “As an American historian who delivered in 1987 his first paper at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association and served on the executive committee of Fordham’s American Studies program, I wanted Fordham’s program to sever official ties with the national organization until it rescinded the measure,” he wrote in Tablet. 

Ultimately, Ben-Atar and five affiliated faculty members resigned from the American Studies program.

According to a statement released by Micki McGee, director of the American Studies program,  on Oct. 21, Ben-Atar subsequently sent emails to her, and others, describing her as anti-Semitic because she did not publicly object the boycott, and threatening to “fight the American Studies Program at Fordham in every forum and in every way” if the program did not withdraw from the ASA. 

These actions led McGee to file a Title IX complaint, which led to an investigation of Ben-Atar. After a few administrative mistakes that included a failure to disclose what charges were brought against him, Ben-Atar was ultimately cleared of all charges, but was found having violated the University’s code of civility. 

Ben-Atar’s commentary went viral and was picked up by multiple news organizations, including Legal Insurrection, Insider Higher Ed and the New York Post.