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Middlebury American Studies Program: Israel boycott violates ASA’s Constitution and Mission

Middlebury American Studies Program: Israel boycott violates ASA’s Constitution and Mission

Demands that Institutional Membership not be in Middlebury College name, only in American Studies Program name.

The President of Middlebury College issued one of the most stinging rebukes to the American Studies Association anti-Israel academic boycott: “the vote is a sad reflection of an extreme and hateful ideology of some members of the academy …. I urge others in the academic community to condemn the ASA boycott and reaffirm their support for academic freedom.”

Now the American Studies Program at Middlebury College has followed suit by issuing an Open Letter to ASA’s President and Executive Committee. (H/t Inside Higher Ed)

The Middlebury professors made one of the points I made in the challenge to ASA’s tax-exempt status, that the ASA mission as expressed in its Constitution does not include the anti-Isrel political activism which now dominates ASA.  The Open Letter reads, in part (emphasis added):

Below is an open letter to the President and Executive Committee of the American Studies Association. Though written by faculty at Middlebury College, we hope that many other institutional members of the ASA, American Studies programs, individual members, and present and former officers of the organization will support the letter’s call for discussion of the ASA’s mission statement….

To the President and Executive Committee of the American Studies Association:

…. The American Studies Program at Middlebury does not support, and will not honor, the American Studies Association’s resolution to boycott academic institutions in Israel….

Beyond our concerns about the merits of academic boycotts in general (and this one in particular), we are concerned that the ASA resolution is inconsistent with the stated mission of the organization. The ASA seems to be neglecting, or at the very least interpreting in a particularly tendentious way, the language of its own constitution. Effectively a mission statement, Article I, Section 2 of the ASA constitution reads:

Sec. 2. The object of the association shall be the promotion of the study of American culture through the encouragement of research, teaching, publication, the strengthening of relations among persons and institutions in this country and abroad devoted to such studies, and the broadening of knowledge among the general public about American culture in all its diversity and complexity.

We recognize and value the production of rigorous scholarship that provides nuanced critiques of the abuses of political power; we admire political activism and those who would seek to correct social injustices. But if the ASA wishes to turn so much of its institutional energy over to activist work and contentious votes on geopolitical matters, we believe the membership should adopt a mission statement and constitution explicitly reflecting that goal.  Such a mission statement would likely be honorable in its own way, but it would be something different from the passage above.

We, therefore, urge the ASA leadership and all of its members to revisit the Association’s constitution, and, through a fully engaged and democratic process, actively choose to endorse or reject changes to the crucial section quoted above…. Such a process—and any changes in the mission statement that result—will also assure that those joining the Association do so with full knowledge of the commitments that they are making as members.

The group also noted that Institutional Members have no voting rights or voice in how the ASA operates, yet entire universities are associated with boycott by implication.

The Middlebury American Studies Program stated that it may revisit its membership, but that in the interim, the manner in which it is listed should be changed to reflect membership only of the American Studies Program, not all of Middlebury College (emphasis added):

Our program will, for the time being, maintain its institutional membership in the ASA, not because we support the boycott resolution, but because we value open and engaged debate and the important, decades-long history of the American Studies Association to our field of study. We hope to be part of a larger effort to have the ASA develop a meaningful mission statement that will guide the organization’s activities. We further hope that even those angered by the ASA resolution will understand that commitment to intellectual dialogue is most important when that principle is hardest to believe in, when parties have fundamental differences in understanding.

Our longer-term membership in the ASA is by no means a foregone conclusion, because we do not have a full understanding of the association’s purpose. If we find no constructive engagement on the effort to define more clearly the ASA’s mission, we will, with regret, leave this long-valued institution. We have also asked the ASA to change the language listing Middlebury College as an institutional member to language listing only the American Studies Program at Middlebury College. Though we hope to see the ASA define itself in ways that will be widely embraced by all who have a stake in the interdisciplinary study of American culture, we do not wish to implicate Middlebury College as a whole, or any other program at the College, in what may now be viewed by some on our campus as an unwelcome affiliation.

(I probably should note that I attended Middlebury’s Russian Language School for two summers and studied in Moscow on a Middlebury program in the early 1980s. I completed half of the requirements for a Masters in Russian language through Middlebury before abandoning the field for law school. Middlebury is a special place for me, and I’m grateful that the President and at least some of the faculty have not lost their senses.)

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