Scholars from around the country convened at DePaul University’s downtown campus last weekend for the DePaul Academic Freedom Conference, a two-day forum for scholars to present findings, research, and ideas about recent trends in academic freedom.
The conference was organized by the DePaul Academic Freedom Committee (AFC), a student organization which seeks to examine the issue of academic freedom for universities nationwide. Much of the organization’s efforts were originally spurred by DePaul’s decisions last year to deny tenure to two of the university’s professors, Dr. Norman Finkelstein and Dr. Mehrene Larudee.
Finkelstein has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government and its role in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Mehrene voiced support for Finkelstein during his controversial tenure case.
The DePaul convention took place against the backdrop of a nationwide dialogue about the limits of academic censorship and free speech. In a similar conference on academic freedom last quarter, the U of C hosted political science professor John Mearsheimer and linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky of the Massachussets Institute of Technology.
Andrew Buchwach, a member of DePaul’s AFC, stressed the vital role of universities in shaping public discourse.
“This is where people learn to think,” he said.
He added that public discourse can become charged and accusatory when particular racial, socioeconomic, or ideological groups become defensive.
With respect to the Israel-Palestine controversy, Buchwach said that the priority of universities should be “freeing up academics to be subjective so we can determine what the hell objectivity is. At the end of the day, we’re not getting all of the facts we need.”
Several speakers at the conference echoed Buchwach’s sentiments.
“We [universities] are in some ways the last bastion for critical analysis and assessment of what our culture does,” said Lawrence Davidson, professor of history at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, during his talk Saturday.
“Zionism is in its present mode the most dangerous thing that Judaism has been confronted with since the Holocaust,” he said. Davidson acknowledged that many critics view his statements as potentially anti-Semitic.
Davidson pointed to the “inherent absurdity and ultra-exaggeration” of attacks on public intellectuals who advocate unpopular views on U.S.–Israeli policy. He urged other academics to go beyond the classroom and into the community, to use their free speech rights in the form of civil liberties.
Landrum Bolling, director of Mercy Corps International and former president of Earlham College, spoke Saturday about his efforts to form a rational and objective account of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
“People of great military power get the seductive idea that they [the dissidents] will only respond to force,” he said. He drew parallels between the Israeli government’s use of force and France’s use of force during the Algerian War of Independence, for which Bolling served as a reporter.
Bolling has made about a dozen trips to Israel and to the occupied territory in his quest for all points of view. He concluded that the most promising solution is to establish a two-state coexistence which would be connected by a central political apparatus.
“There has to be a willingness on both sides to explore various options. There has to be a sense of hope for a peaceful solution,” he said.