Universities need to be held accountable

Universities like to keep their ivory towers locked and resent outsiders banging on the gates. They insist that they are the sole arbiters of academic freedom, educational quality and professional standards. Like police departments that the public no longer trusts to investigate themselves, universities have become increasingly unreliable when it comes to addressing various types of academic malpractice. Consequently, like police departments, universities need oversight.

One recent example of how universities fail to uphold the standards they profess occurred at the University of California, Riverside. A seminar, “Palestine & Israel: Settler- Colonialism and Apartheid,” was offered by an undergraduate student. First, that alone is cause for alarm at a research university where students pay to be taught by Ph.Ds, though they are often forced to settle for doctoral students. It is extremely unusual for an undergraduate to be allowed to teach any course, let alone one where they have no proven expertise.

This course was not simply a creation of an industrious undergraduate, it was sponsored by a member of the faculty who is an outspoken supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign. That alone should disqualify David Lloyd from having any say in the creation of a Middle East related course, but he also has no credentials in that field; he is an English professor.

Given his background, it is not surprising that Lloyd picked one of his English students to teach the course. Once again, her lack of expertise was bad enough, but she also served as president of Riverside’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a group of Israel deniers who sponsor anti-Semitic divestment resolutions around the country. Lloyd, incidentally, is the group’s faculty adviser.

Here is the course description:

We will be discussing the side of the conflict that you don’t hear on mainstream media. The stories of the Palestinian people and their struggles don’t get mentioned, and this class is made to discuss that….Not only will this class teach the students the other side of the conflict that they never hear, but it will also allow them to find ways to take part and listen to personal testimonials from people that have lived/ currently live through it.

If the course dealt with literature, the professor and his student could have argued that the subject was relevant; however, this was a class on politics. The assigned reading was a who’s who of anti-Israel academics: Edward Said, Illan Pappe, Rashid Khalidi, and Saree Makdisi. As a bonus, students get to read a book by Ali Abunimah, a leader of the BDS movement, who began calling for a boycott of Israel while studying at Tel Aviv University. As someone who does not believe Israel has a right to exist, Abunimah is perfectly suited for this course in criticism of Israel.

Where were the faculty who approve courses when this exercise in propaganda was proposed? The fact that such a course could be offered at a major university is indicative of the problems around the country and the need for supervision.

Another recent example occurred at the University of Missouri where a course was offered titled, “Perspectives on Zionism.” This time a professor was scheduled to teach the course; however, George P. Smith is not even in a department where the subject is relevant -- Smith teaches biology. It is not difficult to see why Smith wanted to teach this course, he is described as “an extreme anti-Zionist.” In one op-ed, for example, he asserts the creation of Israel “necessitated expelling the native Palestinian population.” His bio note says that Smith is “a nonreligious member of Congregation Beth Shalom,” but he does apparently know about mitzvoth. His essay concludes: “The Nakba and its aftermath are a shameful chapter in Jewish history. For Jews of good conscience everywhere, repudiating and resisting the injustice perpetrated in their name is an urgent mitzvah….the Jews of Israel must at long last grant the Palestinians they've ruled for so long the same rights as they themselves enjoy, even if it means an end to the ethnically exclusivist Jewish state.”

Once again, the question is how someone with no credentials in the field could be allowed to teach a course on Zionism, especially given his public remarks about Israel. The university reportedly resisted pressure to cancel the course, but did so after no students signed up for it.

I wish I could say these examples are rare, but they are not. Over the past several years a number of outrageous hires have been made, and courses offered, at campuses around the country. For example:

  • Rashid Khalidi, a former PLO official who believes Israel is similar to racist South Africa, is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia.
  • Clovis Maksoud, the virulently anti-Israel former head of the Arab League, was a Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for the Global South at American University.
  • At Clemson University, a philosophy professor offered a Humanities course entitled, “Living under Occupation.”
  • Berkeley offered a course entitled, “The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance,” which the instructor said would explore how Israel “systematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people.”
  • Professor Joseph Massad has said that Israel does not have a right to exist and that Arab anti-Semitism is not real. He has taught a class on Israeli and Palestinian politics at Columbia with a syllabus that explicitly says, “The purpose of the course is not to provide a 'balanced' coverage of the views of both sides.” 

How do individuals and courses like these pass academic muster? It is a sad commentary on the state of university oversight that they do, and evidence of the need for greater accountability to students, trustees, donors and taxpayers. Perhaps universities, like police departments, need review boards, or if these are not seen as sufficiently qualified to judge faculty, maybe they should have to answer to independent academic ombudsmen. 

What is really scary is that much of the classroom malpractice goes unreported because students are afraid to speak out for fear of being punished during grading, which could adversely effect their futures. Consequently, we are left wondering how many of the roughly 1,500 professors who have signed petitions condemning Israel and/or advocating an academic boycott are using their classrooms to indoctrinate students with their political views. 

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.