Tuesday, March 23, 2021

What Can Be Done About a Problem Like Peter?

The other day, the Washington Post published a story about a kerfuffle at Richmond's Virginia Commonwealth University, where the Jewish Studies program invited Peter Beinart to give a talk, prompting backlash from Jewish community organizations who contend VCU's Israel-related programming is one-sided. Beinart, of course, has very publicly evolved from hawkish New Republic editor to dovish two-state solution supporter to his current position rejecting two-states and backing a single-state solution "from the river to the sea" with equal rights for all inhabitants.

My first thought on reading the article was to stake out my general position of absolutist academic freedom: if the relevant officials at VCU want to invite Beinart to speak, there should be no attempt at forcing cancellation of that speech, regardless of whatever opinion I might have about Peter Beinart or his politics.

My second thought, which I viewed as consistent with the first, is that so long as it doesn't take the form of seeking cancellation of the talk, the local Jewish community is entitled to express its discontent that Beinart was invited to speak -- again, regardless of whether I do or don't share their opinion that Beinart is objectionable.

Putting those two thoughts together, though, made me wonder: what is and isn't in-bounds for how the local Jewish community can object to Beinart being invited to speak? I've written before my view about how academic freedom is a constraint on remedies, which raises the question of what "remedies" remain in play and unconstrained? (I was particularly curious about this because I think the WaPo article was somewhat ambiguous on exactly what the local Jewish leaders were and weren't trying to do here).

This question is not, to reiterate, about whether it is proper "on the merits" for the Jewish community to object to Beinart being invited to give a talk. For the most part, the analysis I'll be running through would, I think, be applicable to any speaker who is controversial amongst a particular section of the broader community. So if Peter Beinart doesn't resonate as a valid example, feel free to substitute a different hypothetical speaker that might.

The one wrinkle here is that the VCU's Jewish Studies program appears to be integrated into and a part of the Richmond Jewish community in a way that most university programs are not vis-a-vis any particular segment of the local community -- it is not "just" an academic program, it is also part of the "fabric" of Jewish life in the area both for Jewish students at VCU and for Jews in the Richmond area (for example, front and center on the program website is a series of links to "other Jewish resources" available in the Richmond area; and it appears historically local Jewish community organizations have helped sponsor and support departmental programming). This I think is somewhat common for Jewish Studies programs in cities and towns with a real but not massive Jewish population -- often, the university is the place where speakers and programs on Jewish life occur not just for students and faculty but for the whole community, and there is greater interaction between non-academic communal organizations and departmental leadership than probably is present in, say, the Physics Department. Consequently, it's fair to say that the community has at least somewhat more specific of an interest in the content of the department's programming, albeit not an interest that would override general academic freedom protections.

Let's start with some obvious (to me, anyway) cases. It would clearly not be okay to try and get VCU administrators (or, even more clearly, state officials) to cancel the talk. That's a straight up-and-down academic freedom violation -- a definite no-no. On the other hand, local Jewish organizations clearly are entitled, if they wish, to pull their sponsorship of the event -- if they don't want their names attached to this speech, that's their prerogative. Likewise, if the local JCC or synagogues wanted to offer their own programming featuring speakers with different ideological commitments than Beinart's, that would be clearly be okay.

Okay, those are the easy cases. What else?

One thing the article mentioned is a request that Beinart not speak solo but be situated as part of a panel or with another speaker to "balance" his viewpoint. As several academics quoted in the article observe, the idea that every academic speaker needs to be "balanced" with someone representing the "other side" is not a standard that is observed anywhere else in academia -- the vast majority of talks are "solo" affairs; to the extent "balance" is desired it occurs via the aggregation of all the events and discourses available to students and not measured atomistically in each event. (It's also notable here that this standard -- if taken seriously, which I'm not convinced it's meant to be -- suggests that anytime a university department invites a Zionist speaker to campus, it should be forced to pair them up with an anti-Zionist activist for "balance"). The right to invite a speaker also includes the right to decide the context in which the speaker presents, whether as a standalone lecture, as part of a panel, in a debate, or something else. I would say, then, that any effort to get VCU administrators to alter the design of the event in a manner not desired by the inviting program (e.g., forcing them to add another speaker) also would be an academic freedom violation and is out-of-bounds.

My "impermissibles" thus far have involved seeking to have university administrators (or other high-ranking officials) alter or cancel Beinart's speech. But suppose the effort was not to force a cancellation from on high, but rather to convince the person responsible for the invitation in the first place (here David Weinfeld, the chair of the program on Jewish Studies) to change his mind and retract the invitation. Is that different? My instinct is that so long as the effort solely is comprised of moral suasion (and doesn't carry any tangible or intangible threats of professional retaliation, for instance), that's in-bounds. Who to invite for a speech is an exercise of discretion; it is entirely appropriate for community members to assert that the decision-maker made the wrong call, and there is no sin in the decision-maker ultimately being persuaded that he or she did make the wrong call. 

The issue in this case is that such an effort would almost certainly be unsuccessful -- Weinfeld knew what he was doing when he invited Beinart, he certainly was not unaware of the arguments for and against him as a speaker and so the fact of communal opposition probably won't represent new information likely to change his mind. But we can imagine a different case where a bright-eyed but somewhat clueless university actor wanted to invite a prominent Jewish speaker to campus, saw Peter Beinart was one, and invited him wholly unaware of the negative reaction it would prompt from the community they thought they were serving. In such a circumstance, it's possible that a communal backlash could prompt a reassessment by the appropriate decision-maker; in such a case I'm not sure that these efforts or the result would be inappropriate. One could say this still is a case where outside pressure results in an academic talk being cancelled, but academic freedom recognizes a very strong distinction between the university dean forcing John Doe to cancel his event because of external pressure, and John Doe coming to his own conclusion that he made a mistake when scheduling a given event and changing his mind.

Another possibility involves Jewish communal organizations going to the administrators, not to cancel or even modify the event, but to encourage the university to host additional Jewish programming that takes a different view from that adopted by Beinart -- circumventing, if necessary, the Jewish Studies program which (we'll stipulate for sake of argument) is only inviting speakers from one "side". My instinct is to say this is in-bounds as well, insofar as it represents a remedy of "more speech, not enforced silence", though it's possible once I become a full-time academic I'll develop stronger feelings about university administrators stepping onto the turf of particular programs or departments in order to implement their own judgment on what is a "good" or "balanced" program on matters they don't have any especial expertise in. And of course, this proposal is very much adjacent to the "force the program to offer a balance" remedy which I said is not okay. There is a difference between a dean creating his or her own program which brings in certain speakers who would not be invited by a given professor in the relevant department and the dean forcing a department to alter its own program to match the dean's desires, and while I think that difference is an important one, I also recognize it is a thin one.

This illustrates a more fundamental problem: the lines between the permissible and impermissible, while perhaps clear enough in theory, can become very blurry in practice. If the local JCC meets up with the university president on the subject of Beinart's talk, it's probably difficult to know whether they're trying to get the talk altered (not okay) or get the university to commit to additional programming to supplement the talk (probably okay). Statements of communal discontent that do not contain explicit threats of substantive retaliation nonetheless can be read that way and may be intended to be read that way; but also can be alleged to represent such a threat even if the objectors do everything in their power to scrupulously disavow such an intent.

The fact that there are remedies available to disaffected Jewish communal organizations that do not violate academic freedom, it turns out, may be more true in concept than in reality. On the theoretical level, I feel relatively comfortable in saying it is appropriate and permissible for Jewish communal organizations to try and convince the university to host additional programming or to persuade Weinfeld he "got this one wrong" and retract his invitation, while it would be impermissible for them to try and have the university administration to outright cancel or modify Beinart's event over the objection of the man authorized to invite him. But once one leaves the level of austere theory, the permissible and impermissible often are going to look very much alike. It is, of course, easy for such groups to make demands which are clearly in no way compatible with the university as a place of academic freedom. But it is also possible for them to seek other remedies which, while nominally permissible, may well look like (by sincere and opportunistic interpreters alike) efforts to suppress academic freedom. How to navigate these complex shoals is a question I'm not sure I have an answer to.

No comments: