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Abuses of academic freedom at CSU need your attention

April 16th, 2012

Re: Abuses of academic freedom at CSU need your attention

Dear Chancellor Reed,

Over two months ago, 1,800 members and supporters of the California Jewish community — including hundreds of CSU students, parents, alumni, and donors — signed a letter to you expressing their outrage over the University-hosted web pages of CSU Northridge Mathematics professor David Klein, which include anti-Semitic material promoting the economic, cultural and academic boycott of the Jewish state.  As you know, former CSUN President Jolene Koester refused to have the web pages removed from the University server on the grounds that they were protected by academic freedom.  We therefore urged you to exercise your authority as CSU Chancellor to remove them, and we were deeply disappointed that you did not respond to our letter or in any way acknowledge our serious concerns.

Nor did you respond to a letter that we sent you one week later, in which we brought to your attention and to the attention of three CSU Presidents — John Welty (CSU Fresno), Jeffrey Armstrong (Cal Poly SLO), and Harold Hellenbrand (CSUN) —  further examples of an administrator and two faculty members who have, time and again, used their respective university positions and resources to promote their political hatred of the Jewish state and efforts to harm it, especially through boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns (BDS).  Although you did not respond to us, Presidents Welty, Armstrong, and Hellenbrand did issue a statement condoning the behavior of these university employees and claiming that they were protected by academic freedom.

So although you have not expressed an opinion, four CSU presidents have clearly articulated their position, namely, that the CSU rules of academic freedom give professors and administrators license to use their University positions and tax-payer funded resources to engage in political activities whose goal is to harm the Jewish state, including anti-Semitic boycotts.

We believe that Presidents Koester, Welty, Armstrong, and Hellenbrand are gravely mistaken in their understanding of the nature of academic freedom, for the following reasons:

1) Academic freedom does not protect speech that violates state law. As you know, earlier this month two lawyers from the Global Frontier Justice Center sent a letter to the California Attorney General, warning her that Professor David Klein was guilty of the prolonged and continuous violation of at least two state statutes:  California Government Code 8314, which prohibits any state employee from using public resources for personal benefit, and California Education Code 89005.5(a)(2)(C), which prohibits the use of the state-owned name CSU Northridge for the purpose of promoting personal or political activities including boycott. Moreover, the lawyers pointed out that CSU administrators who have knowingly allowed Professor Klein to keep his web pages on the University server are also guilty of violating these same statutes, and they urged the Attorney General to take prompt action in prosecuting any violations.

While we concur with the assessment of the Global Frontier Justice Center that Professor Klein’s behavior and that of the administrators who knowingly allowed Prof. Klein’s web pages to remain on the University server have violated state law, we believe that such violations are not limited to the matter of Professor Klein’s website.  They extend to other CSU faculty who have been using their University positions and state resources to promote a virulently anti-Israel agenda, as well as to the administrators who have turned a blind eye to it.  Such illegal behavior can in no way be construed as protected by academic freedom.

2) Academic freedom does not protect speech that violates federal anti-discrimination law. The founders of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which Professor Klein prominently promotes on his University website, have openly stated that their ultimate goal is the elimination of the Jewish state, and Hannah Rosenthal, the U.S. State Department’’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, has called their campaign anti-Semitic. The academic boycott effort is part of the larger BDS campaign, which the Jewish community recognizes as a deliberate assault on the Jewish State and the Jewish people. Promoting BDS on an official CSUN website cannot help but contribute to a hostile environment for Jewish students on that campus, in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

3) Academic freedom does not protect speech that seeks to deprive others of their academic freedom. The academic boycott of Israel promoted by Professor Klein on his CSUN-hosted website has been roundly condemned by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), who have described the boycott as a threat to the fundamental principles of academic and intellectual freedom everywhere.

4) Academic freedom is predicated on the assumption of institutional neutrality.  That means that a university, particularly a public university, may not silence a viewpoint that it opposes, but it also may not foster a viewpoint that it prefers.  The university must apply its support uniformly to all speech about a topic.  That is why Presidents Welty, Armstrong, and Hellenbrand wrote in their letter to us: “Our universities do not endorse any particular position, but emphatically support the rights of people to express and hear all points of view.”

However, in actuality, the behavior of some CSU administrators, including one of the presidents who wrote the preceding statement and signed the letter to us, violate the principle of institutional neutrality.

Consider the case of CSU Northridge:

  • CSUN Professor David Klein has posted on his CSUN web page a petition signed by 84 CSU faculty and administrators, which calls for the cancellation of the CSU Israel Abroad program, on the grounds that Israel is an “apartheid” and “racist” state.  In a radio interview which Professor Klein gave on KPFK, a public radio station in Southern California, he claimed that his petition to rescind the CSU Israel Abroad program “set a precedent for objecting to these programs, and therefore for supporting the world-wide BDS program, and the academic and cultural boycott of Israel component of it in particular.” (You can hear Prof. Klein’s interview HERE). Of the 37 CSUN employees who signed Prof. Klein’s petition, 10 are CSUN administrators, including 4 department chairs, 1 associate dean, 3 deans, the associate director of Graduate Programs, and then University Provost Harold Hellenbrand — who is currently serving as Interim President and was one of the three presidents who signed the letter to us claiming that his university does not endorse “any particular position.”
  • In 2007, David Klein, himself a professor of mathematics, initiated a campaign to have CSUN hire Norman Finkelstein, a well-known, virulently anti-Israel political scientist, who had just been denied tenure at DePaul University.  Provost Harold Hellenbrand, whose academic background is in literature, collaborated with Prof. Klein to advocate for Finkelstein’s hire. According to Prof. Klein’s posting about the Finkelstein affair on the University server, Provost Hellenbrand invited Finkelstein to give a series of lectures at CSUN over a five-day visit, in order to “kindle greater interest among faculty and lead to an appointment.” After Finkelstein’s talks, Professor Klein and Provost Hellenbrand lobbied numerous CSUN department heads and outside scholars well-known for their virulent anti-Israel sentiments, in order to garner support for Finkelstein’s appointment.  Ironically, although the chairs of several CSUN departments with no connection to Finkelstein’s field of political science — such as the Physics, Chemistry, and Women’s Studies departments — supported Finkelstein’s hire, the Political Science Department “seemed to want to have nothing to do with him,” and Finkelstein was not ultimately hired.  It is important to point out that for a professor and a provost with absolutely no scholarly expertise in the area of political science to recommend and lobby for the hire of a political scientist, against the expressed wishes of the Political Science Department, is an astonishing breach of academic protocol and an egregious violation of the principles of academic freedom affirmed by the CSU Academic Senate in 2004.  Moreover, Klein and Hellenbrand’s behavior makes crystal clear the fact that their desire to hire Finkelstein was based not on scholarly considerations but on political ones, including the promotion of a one-sided animosity towards the Jewish state.
  • In February, Interim President Hellenbrand, through the Office of Academic Affairs that he directs, authorized thousands of dollars to support a lecture on campus by Ilan Pappe, which had been promoted by Professor David Klein and sponsored by the student groups which Klein advises, including the CSUN Students for Justice in Palestine.   Pappe has publicly called for the elimination of the Jewish state, promotes the campaign to boycott Israeli academics, and openly supports the terrorist organization, Hamas.  The financial support given by Interim President Hellenbrand appears to violate the policy of uniform support to all viewpoints.

These examples highlight the fact that CSUN administrators, who are charged with insuring the viewpoint neutrality of the University in order to protect academic freedom from abuse, have not only shirked their responsibility to remain neutral, but have even been complicit in the very abuses they are charged with preventing.

We therefore request that in your role as top administrator at the California State University, you answer the following question:

Do the CSU rules of academic freedom protect faculty and administrators who use their university positions and state resources to engage in political activities that promote anti-Semitic actions, such as the boycott of Israel?

Your answer to this question is extremely important to the Jewish community, to California state legislators and taxpayers, and to decent people everywhere. If we do not hear from you in the near future, we will assume that you concur with the four CSU presidents and believe that the promotion of efforts to harm the Jewish state, including anti-Semitic boycotts, are protected under academic freedom.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin
Co-founder the AMCHA Initiative

Leila Beckwith
Co-founder the AMCHA Initiative

CC:    CSU Board of Trustees
California Governor Jerry Brown
California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom
California Speaker of the Assembly John A. Perez
California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson
Congressman Brad Sherman
Congressman Howard Berman
California State Senator Tom Berryhill (Fresno)
California State Assemblyman Henry T. Perea (Fresno)
California State Assemblywoman Linda Halderman (Fresno)
California State Senator Sam Blakeslee (San Luis Obispo)
California State Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian (San Luis Obispo)
California State Senator Alex Padilla (Northridge)
California State Assemblyman Bob Blumenfeld (Northridge)

Bcc:    Members and supporter of the Jewish community


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