The Morality of the Boycott


Over 500 philosophers have signed on to the boycott of University of Illinois, initiated after it rescinded Steven Salaita’s job offer. Already, the boycott has affected the university’s department of philosophy. David Blacker (Delaware), cancelled a talk he was to give there that was co-sponsored by the philosophy department. Eric Schwitzgebel (Riverside) reports that he has withdrawn from presenting a talk and a keynote address at a mini-conference on experimental philosophy there in December. And Mark Van Roojen (Nebraska) has let me know that he, too, has pulled out of talk he was scheduled to give there this term.

One of the moral difficulties with boycotts is that they sometimes involve the attempt by one party to get a “guilty” second party to do something by harming or imposing a cost on an “innocent” third party. In this case, hundreds of philosophers, along with thousands of other academics, are attempting to get the administration at the University of Illinois to respect the free speech rights of Steven Salaita, and are doing so by imposing costs on faculty and students there. These faculty and students are being deprived of interaction and opportunities for the development of intellectual community at their institution with visiting scholars. Plans are disrupted, and presumably the attractiveness of the department to prospective students and employees suffers as the boycott goes on.

A question to ask in light of this is whether we ought to do something to make up for the undeserved harm we are visiting upon University of Illinois philosophy students and faculty. (For example, we could make special efforts to include them in events held elsewhere.) Yet, a concern is that to do so would be to make the boycott less painful, and so, less effective. What, if anything, should we do? I welcome discussion of these and related issues.

UPDATE: UIUC Philosophy Department votes no confidence in Chancellor Wise and Board of Trustees (via John Protevi). The statement:

Whereas the recent words and actions of Chancellor Phyllis Wise, President Robert Easter, and the Board of Trustees in connection with the revocation of an offer of employment to Dr. Steven Salaita betray a culpable disregard not only for academic freedom and free speech generally but also for the principles of shared governance and established protocols for hiring, tenure, and promotion, the faculty of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign declares its lack of confidence in the leadership of the current Chancellor, President, and Board of Trustees.

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Jim
Jim
7 years ago

At least in the U of I case, the boycott is aimed at the university, and presumably the administration will relent because of their connection to the victims, the students and faculty. I’ve heard of cases where the victim is many times removed from the malefactor, e.g. a philosophy department is boycotted because of something the legislature has done. This latter kind of case strikes me as simply wrong.Report

Lev Sedov
Lev Sedov
7 years ago

This boycott is an excellent action. I hope that it spreads and UIUC becomes entirely isolated.

We all should also quietly reach out to those who work at UIUC and offer them support. This includes making an effort to invite them to give talks and participate in conferences.

Will this appreciably limit the effectiveness of the boycott? Probably a little bit. Boycott typically aim to do three things: (1) Generate financial pressure on the boycott target; (2) Generate disesteem directed at the boycott target; (3) Publicly demonstrate support for the cause for which one is engaging in the boycott.

It is hard to see how aim #1 will be directly achieved through a boycott. As far as I know, universities do not depend upon talks, conferences, etc., as appreciable sources of revenue (in fact these things are probably immediate net costs).

On the other hand, if aim #2 is achieved and UIUC becomes highly disesteemed, there may be some reason for the powers-that-be to worry that certain revenue streams will slow down. I do not know enough about university financing in general, and UIUC financing in particular, to speculate further on whether succeeding in aim #2 will lead to success in aim #1.

So, really, if the boycott is likely to succeed, realizing aim #2 is probably the most plausible route to success. For, esteem matters beyond the bottom line. And, a powerful boycott targeting the university will certainly generate disesteem. The louder and more widely supported the boycott, the more the disesteem. Hopefully, that will yield change.

It seems to me that aim 2 can all be achieved simultaneously while at the same time as reaching out to faculty at UIUC and inviting them to participate without massively reducing the esteem effects of the boycott. After all, the key is the *public* perception that UIUC is now a verboten place to visit.

One thing matters to me, though. I think that the faculty, students, staff, and administrators of UIUC bear far more the responsibility of fighting this odious decision in the Salaita case than do the rest of us. Insofar as they do not organize and resist this decision, I am less inclined to worry about how the boycott is affecting them. Sometimes, people are in an unlucky situation and therefore come to have new responsibilities that they did not otherwise have. The community at UIUC are in this position now. If they do not step up (e.g., protests, canceling all events, maybe a work stoppage of some sort, etc.), then they do not have quite the same claim on others mitigating whatever bad effects the boycott might have.

(Finally, there is aim #3. This is kind of washing one’s hand of guilt. Benefiting from the operations of an unjust institution, even if the operations from which one benefits are themselves just, is morally suspect. One might feel that boycotting such an institution allows one to avoid being morally tainted.)Report

Zara
Zara
7 years ago

It strikes me that the moral tension involved in a boycott depends on the actual harm done to innocent third parties. The harm done to TT faculty members at UIUC seems minimal. It might be a little bad if your department can’t get any speakers for a couple of years (I don’t expect this boycott to be indefinite). But there’s an obvious upside, because most talks aren’t that good anyway, and it’s kinda annoying to have to go to them. Also, a colloquium-less year can free up departmental funds that can be used to send grad students to conferences, somewhat mitigating the harm that might come to them. I feel worse for the grad students, post-docs and adjunct faculty than for the TT faculty, since I tend to think that TT faculty can fend for themselves when it comes to networking, etc., and don’t need visiting speakers for this. As mentioned above, maybe collateral harm done to grad students and others can be mitigated by freed up funds.Report

Owen Flanagan
Owen Flanagan
7 years ago

I’d be very interested in hearing from the philosophers at UIUC, now that they have voted no confidence in the higher administration and the board of trustees, what ongoing action they think would be helpful, effective, and just. I could imagine that if department after department at UIUC takes such action (no confidence votes) they could think, and we on the outside, might agree that we ought not to boycott them, which does, as others have said, harm innocents.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

I am not at all in support of this boycott. As the OP points out, the boycott is a way of putting pressure on the UIUC administration by taking actions that only harm the UIUC faculty and students. One might debate the degree to which faculty and students are harmed by the boycott. But the fact that they are harmed at all should force some serious evaluation of the PURPOSES of the boycott, and whether there are better means of attaining these goals.

As for what these purposes are… I’m not really sure I’m in a position to say definitively, since each individual joining the boycott probably has his or her own purposes. But it seems reasonable to presume that most people are joining the boycott in order to express their disapproval of the administration’s decision, and put pressure on the administration to change their decision. But these goals can be met in other ways – peaceful protests, petitions, letters to the editor of major newspapers, and so on. Given that these alternatives are available, why boycott?

Perhaps the idea is that boycotting UIUC will turn up the heat on the administration by making the students and faculty more vocal in their opposition to the administration. But this suggestion is troubling. Either the students and faculty of UIUC would have been vocal in their opposition to the administration without the boycott, or they would not. If they would have been vocal without the boycott, then the boycott serves to practical purpose, as it does not change the outcome. If they would not have been vocal opponents of the administration, the boycott serves as a way to pressure individuals who are not opposed to the administration’s decision to become opposed, or at least act as though they are opposed. But this means the boycott is nothing more than coercion of innocent bystanders with different viewpoints; we should neither participate in it nor condone it.

On a related note, it is seems abundantly clear that the boycott is very much politically-motivated. Salaita’s defenders have made their case on the basis of appeals to a right to free speech. But it’s hard to imagine an uprising within academia if a liberal university administration had refused to approve a job offer to a conservative job candidate because that candidate had publicly posted incendiary and hateful comments in support of Israel and against the people of Gaza.

Given the obvious political motivations behind the boycott, and the fact that the boycott involves harming individuals who have nothing to do with the administration’s troubling decision, I cannot support this action.Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
7 years ago

Something we can all do consistent with harming no innocent people is pressure administrations at our own institutions to write a public statement affirming the right of their faculty and their prospective faculty to academic freedom, which includes political statements, even inflammatory political statements, over social media and other formats. Many administrations from many institutions found themselves very motivated to affirm academic freedom principles in statements opposing the ASA support of the BDS movement. I have noticed that Boards of Trustees, Presidents, Chancellors, and Deans are highly sensitive to what peer institutions do and say. A slew of such statements gives the Board and administration at UIUC a lot of evidence that they are, indeed, isolated.Report

John Protevi
Reply to  Barry Lam
7 years ago

Barry, I have drafted a resolution to the Faculty Senate at my school; that’s another way to register public disapproval of Wise, Kennedy, et al. at UIUC. People should feel free to use it as a template:

https://www.facebook.com/notes/john-protevi/3rd-and-final-i-hope-draft-of-faculty-senate-resolution-affirming-academic-freed/10152710235077533Report

Hegelsghost
Hegelsghost
7 years ago

Dear anonymous until tenured,

I take exception to your comment that no one would object if someone was fired for pro Israeli tweets. Many of us are in principle in support of academic freedom. In the larger context many of is support the ACLU, an organization known for defending the rights of nazis and the klan as well as communists and atheists.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  Hegelsghost
7 years ago

I did not say that no one would object if someone was fired for pro Israeli tweets. I said that it would be surprising if there were an uprising in academia. I’m sure that many would object if someone were fired for pro Israeli tweets. There are many who stand up for free speech rights regardless of the viewpoint being expressed – I consider myself one of them. But if someone were fired for pro Israeli tweets, I’m fairly confident that the response from the academic community would be much different, in both magnitude and tenor. I’m also fairly confident that the administration would have many more defenders. I admit that this is speculation, but given the decidedly pro-Palestinian views of much of the academic community, these speculative conclusions seem reasonable. I would be happy to be proven wrong.

For those that have a genuine interest in viewpoint-neutral free speech, I salute you. And should Salaita opt to sue UIUC on First Amendment grounds, I think he’d have a strong case (although this is speculation again; I’m not familiar with the relevant case law). I do think the UIUC administration acted wrongly. My issue is with the boycott movement qua collective action, since many of those participating are doing so (perhaps subconsciously – that’s how cognitive bias works) out of partisan political motivations.

And to clarify: my main issue with the boycott does not center on its partisan nature, but rather the fact that it harms bystanders and attempts to coerce them, when there are means of attaining the same ends that do neither of these things.Report

anon22
anon22
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

It is not “partisan” to object to the slaughter of innocent human beings.

Take a look at the death toll in Gaza (data collected by the Washington Post http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/special/world/gaza-counter/):

Of 1958 deaths in total: 65 were Israeli soldiers, 217 were Palestinian militants, 1396 were Palestinian civilians and 277 were uncategorised Palestinians.

You are ignoring the reality of the situation on the ground.Report

Mark van Roojen
7 years ago

I’m all in favor of treating faculty at U of I well, consistent with supporting a boycott that may do some good for academia, and for the University of Illinois. But it is worth pointing out that it isn’t obvious that those who boycott are on balance not already treating these faculty well. To be sure it isn’t fun not to have the stimulation of departmental talks and other forms of cooperation that boycott’s rule out. But the point of the thing is to support the rights of faculty in general, including especially the rights of those who may have to do without talks at U of I in the interim. Strikes too are hard on the people out on strike, but at least sometimes workers see them as on balance worth doing, for whatever point the strike is in support of. The same thing holds here.

In philosophy, this is a real life issue. The university has taken a position that puts every philosophy professor there in an in principle vulnerable position (even if in fact it will only be the politically active who get targeted). Not respecting a position as a grounds for negative employment decisions is ludicrous (he said thereby not respecting a position). And to be honest, the issue generalizes. If the University of Illinois pulls this off, it will be all the more likely that other universities will be pressured by donors to fire/dehire/refuse to hire people based on the influence of moneyed opinion alone. The fact that the philosophers at U of I have gone on record against the administration on these issues, shows that they get what is at stake here.Report

Jennifer Frey
Reply to  Mark van Roojen
7 years ago

I agree with Mark, but I’m not sure that only the politically active will be targeted (but that may just depend on how we parse the meaning of that phrase, especially “active”). The trouble is that Salaita’s views were unpopular with or offensive to many influential donors and members of the university community. Moral/political philosophers in particular can often advance views that are “offensive” and certainly unpopular and out of sync with the university population/donor population at large.

Also, we should not think about this in abstraction from larger and worrying trends, such as the growth of the non-faculty administrative class, the loss of faculty self-governance and rights, and the marginalization of the Humanities. Loss of academic freedom are a part of these bigger changes taking place in the modern, secular university.Report

anonymous
anonymous
7 years ago

I am confused about why Anonymous Until Tenured seems to think that the only justification for a boycott is protection of free speech. She seems to think that it would be bad if the boycott were politically motivated. But free speech is itself a political issue which I see no reason to blanket accept as the God-given right that some in this country seem to think it is. What, exactly, is wrong with supporting the boycott not for one kind of political reason–free speech–(I am among those who would not boycott if, for example, the speech in question was white supremacist talk) but for another? Characterizing free speech (whatever that means) as an apolitical issue that everyone should automatically support and claiming that the position that brutal oppression/apartheid are wrong is a political one (and hence a bad motivation for a boycott?) does not make any sense to me.Report

Mark Lance
Mark Lance
7 years ago

If anyone were fired for pro-Israel tweets, the first reaction would be to die of shock.
But more seriously, AUT says “the boycott is nothing more than coercion of innocent bystanders with different viewpoints; we should neither participate in it nor condone it.” But what in the world makes you think we should never condone coercion of bad viewpoints? This may be tacitly relying on some absurd thought/action distinction, that is assuming that our actions are not based on our thoughts. If not, then of course we coerce people all the time on the basis of bad viewpoints. We coerce the guy who thinks he can hit people at the bar whenever he wants to, or the person who thinks that it is a good idea to invade our country. I, for one, have no problem coercing someone who refuses to recognize a clear and serious moral harm and do their duty in the face of it. (South African boycotts, divestment and sections were coercive, of those who collaborated with an evil regime. Damned straight they were. That’s why we worked for them.) Put another way, this is to deny that people who are doing nothing to prevent their university from firing people for private political action on behalf of an abused population are not “innocent bystanders”. They are complicit.

Now of course saying that coercion is permissible is not to say one can harm in any way whatsoever. Of course we should minimize damage to anyone. As Zara says above, this is pretty damned minimal harm. Sure, minimal by comparison to the effects of destroying academic freedom.Report

Joshua A. Miller
7 years ago

I don’t think the philosophy department actually disagrees with the boycott, at least not yet. I’d guess they’re even now considering leaving themselves, now that they’ve learned about the way that civility will play a role in tenure and promotion, and are thus effectively hoping to boycott their own institution. But if someone at UIUC did disagree, I don’t think they could use an argument like AUT’s. It seems like the argument that a boycott is wrong rests on the claim that UIUC and its departments have a right to our attendance at their events.

Surely they do not have such a right: if I may forgo participating in a conference because the travel is too arduous or the honorarium too small to cover my expenses, then I may forgo participation because I do not agree with the administration (the psychic and social toll is too large given the rewards.) I don’t even know what it means to have a conference where all viewpoints receive equal respect, which it seems is now a requirement at UIUC, and so I wouldn’t know how to behave. The fact that many, many people choose to forgo participation for the same reason seems akin to many people deciding that the trip is too arduous after a nearby airport is closed. The counterexamples that come to mind (e.g., an organized refusal to participate at events at an HBCU out of naked racism) seem obviously disanalogous to me. But perhaps I am wrong.

A better argument against the boycott is that our participation or lack thereof is irrelevant and therefore our boycott will be ineffective. Thus both the department and the speaker are deprived of a good without any benefit. I think this likely (most boycotts are failures, after all), especially given the much more substantial economic and reputational costs the administration has shown itself willing to bear. But still, it seems worth finding other venues if we can, for as long as we can, just because we can.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

There seem to be two main objections to my argument. The first is that academic freedom is incredibly important, and UIUC cannot be allowed to get away with doing what they did. The second is that the issue over which Salaita’s job offer was not approved (the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) does not deserve to be called a partisan political issue. I’ll respond to both of these in turn.

The first objection is a non sequitur. I agree that academic freedom is incredibly important, and I agree that UIUC’s administration should be pressured and held to account. My contention is that the boycott is not the best means to this end. There are alternatives that do not harm faculty and students at UIUC and would be just as effective at securing these ends, if not more so. If a member of another department is invited to UIUC to give a talk, that professor has at least the following two options: (1) Decline the invitation in accordance with the boycott, or (2) Accept the invitation, give a talk at the UIUC department on the metaphysics of spacetime (or what have you), then, while on campus, participate in a peaceful protest targeted specifically at the UIUC administration, holding a sign that says “[speaker’s home department] stands for academic freedom!” or something similar. When it comes to avoiding harm to others and actually generating pressure on the UIUC administration, which are the relevant goals here (right?), it seems like (2) is the dominant strategy. I’d be open to hearing counter-arguments on this, but keep in mind: my objection is not to the end, it is to the means.

The second objection involves us in much trickier issues, and since my main point is really the point that I made in the previous paragraph, I can see myself backing down here. But to give you all an idea of where I’m coming from: I’m dividing up the space of what counts as a partisan political issue, and which does not, along largely Rawlsian lines. If an issue is one about which reasonable people can disagree, there is a presumption in favor of tolerance of other viewpoints. And while I think everyone should agree that the situation in Gaza is deplorable, reasonable people can disagree on how blame should be apportioned for the situation. I don’t want to get into a broader discussion of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (that’s not what I’m really interested in here), but I think there are reasonable arguments for any of the following conclusions: (1) Israel is (almost) entirely to blame, (2) Hamas is (almost) entirely to blame, (3) both Israel and Hamas share a significant portion of the blame. Thus, anyone who is involved in the boycott (a coercive measure) because of their commitment to (1) is violating the Rawlsian principle of tolerance spelled out in Political Liberalism. And because I’m fairly confident that there are a large number of people involved in the boycott for this reason (although, again, this is speculation, and I’d be happy to be proved wrong), I’m uncomfortable with the boycott.

Again, I’m open to counter-arguments. This isn’t an issue that I’m incredibly passionate about one way or another, and I really only started thinking seriously about the boycott when the original post went up yesterday. But this is where my thinking has taken me; let me know if I went wrong somewhere.Report

anonphil
anonphil
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

Shorter version:
I’ve hardly bothered to acknowledge, let alone respond, to arguments actually set forth by proponents of the boycott (e.g., Corey Robin, Brian Leiter, members of the UIUC Philosophy Dept.); I’m simply speculating that “partisan political” motives are driving “a large number” of the boycott’s proponents; and I’m not much invested “one way or another,” having “only started thinking seriously about the boycott…yesterday.” Still, I’m a thoughtful, fair-minded interlocutor “open to counter-arguments.” So it might be worthwhile to engage me here, on my terms, for my edification.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  anonphil
7 years ago

I have responded to arguments set forth by proponents of the boycott. That’s what I was doing with this last post. Brian Leiter’s argument is an argument for the conclusion that what the UIUC administration did was both morally wrong and unconstitutional. The UIUC Philosophy Dept.’s statement makes an argument to the same effect. That makes them both fall under the category of what I called “the first objection.” And again, my response to those arguments: I agree with the conclusions of those arguments. But those conclusions do not entail that a boycott is the correct course of action, as there are alternatives that seem less problematic. Corey Robin’s argument is a bit more sophisticated. Robin argues that the academic community should not stand idly by and let this fade away, and a boycott would be an effecitve means of keeping up the pressure. I agree that this issue should not fade away. But again, I respond: there are many actions that one might take to pressure the UIUC administration that are likely to be both more effective and less harmful to others.

As to your ad hominem attacks… the fact that I developed these arguments yesterday does not make them, ipso facto, bad arguments. I mentioned that I am open to counter-arguments by way of inviting you to provide me with counter-arguments. That invitation is still open; a straw-man of my position does not constitute a counter-argument. Is it really so hard to believe that I am looking for the best solution to a tricky problem?Report

Anophil#2
Anophil#2
Reply to  anonphil
7 years ago

Anonphil — Scroll down. I think it’s pretty clear that AUT is thoughtful, fair-minded, and open to counter-arguments. The professional-cultural norms of philosophy permit us to present our views on issues that we might not have thought much about, with the aim of drawing out edifying responses from those on the other side of those issues. I’ve seen many people do this in Q and A sessions, and indeed I’ve done it myself, and it is not generally regarded as inappropriate. I myself am a member of several activist communities, and I recognize that AUT’s behavior my run afoul of their norms. At the same time, I think it is a bad idea to hold behavior within the philosophical community to standards that are more appropriate for activist communities.Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
7 years ago

Anonymous Until Tenured: I guess I’m skeptical about your boycott alternative. We can all boycott the university relatively easily by simply not going to conferences there–our combined small efforts can have an impressively large effect. Your alternative is for the 5 or so invited speakers to picket the administration. Are they supposed to join the protest that you think is going to last all year long? Or are the speakers supposed to picket by themselves? In terms of exerting pressure, a boycott is surely better (and as Zara points out, and Mark reiterates, the harm done by this particular bit of coercion is really pretty small compared the importance of academic freedom).

Also, your run-down of the objections to your argument is missing Mark’s: why ever should we regard coercion of bad viewpoints as impermissible? We seem to justifiably do it all the time.

Also, the stuff from Rawls’s PL is a red herring. Rawls’s question is what standards *a government’s* coercive actions should meet. What private citizens may do in the course of protesting injustice is a different question altogether. PETA, for example, should be free to organize whatever boycotts they like, disagreement of the reasonable notwithstanding.

Also, if your argument just assumes the truth of Rawls’s PL… I mean, I respect the hell out of Rawls. But the claim that the standards from PL are the right ones for justifying all coercion (not only from governments but also from private citizens) is far from obvious.Report

Anonymous Until Tenured
Anonymous Until Tenured
Reply to  Luke Maring
7 years ago

Thanks for your thoughtful response, Luke.

Regarding Rawls and PL – you’re right, of course, that Rawls is concerned about government coercive power, and not the coercive power of people, and thus this isn’t a strict application of Rawls’s principles. So: good point. Maybe a better way to phrase my idea would be to say that it is inspired by Rawls. It seems to me that what makes government coercion where there can be reasonable disagreement wrong is not that it is the government that is coercing, it’s that the measures are coercive to begin with. This might just be a point where I disagree with you and Mark: I’m deeply concerned about a practice of coercing people with “bad viewpoints” to change their mind. Arguing with people with bad viewpoints, and trying to convince them that they should change their mind? Absolutely. We should be trying to do that. But twisting someone’s arm until they yell “Academic freedom is important”? That makes me uneasy.

Still, I’m willing to back down from this point. I’m not at all certain that I can provide satisfactory arguments regarding the permissibility of coercion in the public sphere. And since this is the point I’m concerned with the least, I’ll back down here, for the sake of argument.

That brings me to your other point, regarding the effectiveness of the boycott as opposed to other methods, and the question of how much harm is being imposed. This is where my real concerns lie. So first up: how much harm does the boycott cause? Well, it’s hardly a violation of anyone’s human rights, but I don’t think the harm is trivial, either. Mark van Roojen made the comment that conferences and talks are “fun,” but that’s not all that’s at stake. To quote Justin from the original post: the boycott is meeting its goals “by imposing costs on faculty and students there. These faculty and students are being deprived of interaction and opportunities for the development of intellectual community at their institution with visiting scholars. Plans are disrupted, and presumably the attractiveness of the department to prospective students and employees suffers as the boycott goes on.” Think of it this way: the American university system spends millions of dollars every year on colloquia, symposia, conferences, etc. They’re not spending all this money for no reason, or purely for entertainment purposes. They’re doing it because flying in speakers from other universities is a valuable part of academic life. The boycott will deprive students and faculty at UIUC of that. Now, this isn’t a world-ending cost, but it is, I think, substantial enough that it’s worth seriously considering if those costs can be justified. My view is that they are not, given the possibility of alternatives that do not impose these costs.

So, next up: the alternatives. Since much of my argument depends on what these alternatives are, let me say a little bit about how I think these alternatives should be carried out. The boycott proposal says that everyone – invited speakers or not – ought to send a letter to the university saying that they will not accept any offers to speak there until the administration’s decision is changed. For those individuals who are not invited speakers, the letter would be the extent of the involvement with the boycott, anyway. So for those individuals: send a letter anyway! But don’t threaten to boycott the university! The problem with the boycott is that it doesn’t directly harm the administration. Instead, those letter-writers should be threatening something that the administration DOES care about. “If you don’t approve Salaita’s offer, I will deprive your faculty and students of a valuable academic experience!” (The administration shrugs.) “If you don’t approve Salaita’s offer, I will lobby the Illinois State Senate to cut funding to your university, on the grounds that you are not fulfilling your mission as an academic institution.” (The administration takes notice.)

For those who are invited: I admit that I am presuming that protests will be ongoing. If protests are ongoing, then the speaker should join those protests. If they are not… well, things start to get grim in this scenario, because if the protests against the administration die down, the odds of a boycott achieving anything are already in the slim-to-none range. But still, in this scenario, I think the thing to do would be for the invited speaker to contact the department that invited him or her to attend, and see if the department in question would be interested in organizing a demonstration against the administration. This way, the speaker would not be picketing alone, and it would show true solidarity between the departments of different universities. If the department is not interested in organizing any kind of demonstration, then I think it might be the right course of action to decline the invitation. This is because, in refusing to help protest, the department is (at least implicitly) taking the administration’s side in the conflict. That seems like perfectly adequate grounds for not contributing to the intellectual life of that department.

I also think that more efforts should be made to get the mainstream media interested in this story in order to generate pressure on the administration from outside academia.

Those are my proposals for alternatives that will be as effective or more effective than the boycott, and which will not impose harms on any third parties. Criticisms are welcome.Report

Luke Maring
Luke Maring
Reply to  Anonymous Until Tenured
7 years ago

I see. I’m also concerned about practices of coercing people. Negative liberty matters, so coercion comes to the table with a strike against it. But I think that if you reflect on the wide range of cases in which we justifiably coerce one another, it’s pretty hard to resist the conclusion that the prima facie case against coercion is often overturned by other values.

(Quick note: it makes good sense that governmental coercion be held to a different standard than coercion by private citizens. Governments coerce with firearms and prisons; boycotts by private citizens are just not on that level. So I think you’re right to concede that point, and not just arguendo.)

The rest of your argument is about instrumental efficacy and collateral damage: you think that the good of protecting academic freedom can be better achieved by something other than a boycott, and that boycott harms more innocent parties than those other means. *If* it that turns out to be the case, then I’d agree that the boycott is wrong. But as far as measuring the efficacy of various ways to pressure the admin, I’m just out of my depth. I’m going to defer to people (like Mark) who have decades of experience organizing.Report

Coriolanus
Coriolanus
7 years ago

The students and faculty at UIUC are in a war zone. They have a responsibility to support the boycott and not leave the matter to external speakers to fight their battles for them by having them picket the chancellors office. This is a desperately weak suggestion, but it is characteristically pusillanimous, in character with a profesoriate anxious to cede power to administrations to keep the peace. The institution should be avoided it at all costs.Report