Letter from John Sexton on March 1, 2014 American Studies Conference
Dear Fellow Members of the NYU Community,
In recent days, I have received many inquiries about an upcoming annual academic conference sponsored by our American Studies program and organized by graduate students within the program. These have come from both within and outside the NYU community.
Our provost and I have made our opposition to boycotts of Israeli academics and universities clear, both in response to the recent American Studies Association vote and in the past. Our rejection of these calls for boycotts stems from our belief that it contravenes a key principle of academic freedom: the right of scholars to freely associate. And, indeed, NYU has and will continue to have robust relationships with Israeli scholars and institutions through programs such as NYU Tel Aviv and the Taub Center for Israel Studies.
But the invocation of academic freedom is not a one-way street. Many of the messages I have received have asked me to cancel the coming conference or disavow it. However, the same set of principles that gives rise to my opposition to the boycott also causes me to stand up for the rights of our faculty to pursue their scholarship. This is true even in those instances when the ideas being examined are unpopular, or controversial, or at odds with the University's own position on a matter.
Many institutions in our society speak with a single voice; if someone affiliated with that institution expresses a point of view, it is assumed to be that institution's point of view unless it is actively disavowed. Universities, however, are not like that. Our strength -- and one of our key contributions to our society -- lies in our ability to be home to many voices, many ideas -- even opposing ideas -- at the same time. For that reason, the lack of an expression of condemnation should not be construed as an endorsement of a particular point of view, but instead an upholding of the idea that the widest possible range of views should be tolerated within our university community.
In an ideal world, every academic forum would host a perfectly balanced range of views; in the practical world, that seldom proves to be true. But the principles of academic freedom are at odds with the idea that a university administration should impose upon its scholars requirements for the spectrum of views to be hosted at the academic conferences they organize and conduct. And many academic events on our campus -- such as the one in question -- are not broad, public events, but closed ones.
Most of the time, these events occur with minimal controversy. But in circumstances like this one -- where there is great scrutiny, a history of polemics, and such strong feelings held by those on both sides of the issue -- the need to stay true to our principles of academic freedom becomes all the greater. Staying true to the principles of academic freedom would be easy if the only topics we discussed in the NYU community were ones on which we all agreed; but that is not our nature or our history, and moments like this will emerge from time to time to test our commitment to them. It is important for us to prove ourselves equal to that test, and to remain faithful to the free exchange of ideas, even if the full range of ideas on a topic may not be represented in any single event.
And so, NYU shall go forward in accordance with the principles of academic freedom, both rejecting the boycott of Israeli academics and institutions of higher learning, and supporting the right of our faculty to pursue their scholarship and academic activity.