Danger Will Robinson! Academic Freedom or Anti-Semitisim At UCSB?

WilliamRobisnonOn January 19, 2009  University of California-Santa Barbara sociology professor William I. Robinson sent out an email message to his “Sociology of Globalization” students  equating Israel with Nazi Germany and Gaza with the Warsaw Ghetto. The email  entitled:“Parallel images of Nazis and Israelis,“ read in part as follows:

“I am forwarding some horrific, parallel images of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians. Perhaps the most frightening are not those providing a graphic depiction of the carnage but that which shows Israeli children writing “with love” on a bomb that will tear apart Palestinian children.

Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw – a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians, subjecting them to the slow death of malnutrition, disease and despair, nearly two years before their subjection to the quick death of Israeli bombs. We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide (Websters: “the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group”), a process whose objective is not so much to physically eliminate each and every Palestinian than to eliminate the Palestinians as a people in any meaningful sense of the notion of people-hood.”

The e-mail also  contained more than two dozen photographs of Jewish victims of the Nazis, including those of dead children juxtaposed with similar images from the Gaza Strip.

Two students who received the email dropped the class  They reportedly also sought advice from the Simon Wiesenthal Center and were allegedly advised to file formal grievances with the university.  They grievances were filed accusing the professor of intimidation and “violating the campus’ faculty code of conduct by disseminating personal, political material unrelated to his course.”

Professor Robinson defended the email stating that it was designed to prompt open discussion and debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the school was violating his 1st amendment rights and right of Academic Freedom.  He also alleged he was being retaliated against for his anti-Israel statements.GazaRuins1

An investigation ensued under a firestorm of controversy including the way the inquiry was conducted. Professor Robinson alleged he was denied due process . During the course of the 5 month investigation professor Robinson was called out with harsh criticism by the Anti Defamation League.(ADL)

Professor Robinson, who is Jewish, was cleared of any wrongdoing. He is now demanding an apology from the University. Is he owed one?

There are 1st Amendment/Free Speech and academic freedom considerations here.  UC-Santa Barbara is a state school.  Professor Robinson does have 1st Amendment protection for certain types of speech.  Compare this to a private company such as Facebook where there is no 1st Amendment protection for posted content.  An end-users free-speech rights in that realm are controlled entirely by Facebook Terms Of Service.(TOS)   Compare also to a private university where there would generally be no 1st amendment protection. A professors speech rights would generally be  controlled by whatever rules and regulations regulating speech the university has in place.(California in fact grants greater free speech rights at private universities)warsaw-ghetto-uprising2

Like Facebook, UC-Santa Barbara has its own version of TOS. It has it’s of Faculty Conduct.  That code says that a professor may not use university resources to disseminate personal, political materials unrelated to his course.”

There is no question here that the email and photos sent out by professor Robinson were political. The issue becomes whether it was course related or a personal rant.  Whether there is enough relation to what he is teaching to trigger his “right of academic freedom“. This right allows him to teach his course without undue interference from the University.

Was the email germane to the course he was teaching and advancing a legitimate educational objective? I was  able to locate a copy of the syllabus for the course Sociology of Globalization(130SG) taught by professor Robinson.  I may have missed something but I did not see anything even remotely connected to the content of the email.

Is Professor Robinson Anti-Semitic as some claim?  He may or may not be but as long as he does not bring it into the classroom it is irrelevant.  Is the email itself Anti-Semitic? It is certainly not Anti-Semitic  to  simply criticize Israeli policy. As we all know however, semantics and form over substance are often involved in these issues.  Holocaust Denial is a perfect example. While the mere fact of “Denying The Holocaust” may not carry words of hate in it, there are those, including myself who feel that Holocaust Denial is nothing more than an Anti-Semitic pretext for bringing those together who hate Jews.

The Robinson analogy does by implication portray Israelis as  genocidal mass murderers  and in that context could be viewed as Anti-Semitic.  I also view the email as historically insensitive as well as bizarre and buffoonish in its analogies.  It certainly damages Professor Robinson’s credibility as a scholar.  I would not be taking any comparative history course from him.  The 1st Amendment and right of academic freedom however allows Professor Robinson to be a buffoon and historical idiot.

What the email did do is procedurally violate university policy.  Using university resources, Professor Robinson sent a personal, inflammatory, political email that could have no other intent than to influence his students.  His subjective ,after-the-fact statement of  intent does not change the real time context of the email when it was it sent. If a professor could always justify a potentially university policy  violative exchange of content with a subjective after the fact intent statement, nothing with ever violate a Code Of Conduct.   There simply was no context.  The course syllabus has no relation whatsoever to the content of the email.

What if he had simply read the contents of the email in class, putting the pictures up on a big screen as he read the email?

While I can not speak to the alleged lack of due process, in my mind the email clearly violated the Faculty Code Of Conduct. Professor Robinson should have been disciplined.   An apology is owed but not by the University…

Here is Professor Robinson’s side of the story in a April 29, 2009  interview given to Counterpunch.

Below is the perspective a student in the class.


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4 Responses

  1. I am both an Israeli and US citizen. I have served in the IDF and have a 97 year old grandmother that is a Aushwitz survivor. In addition, I have lived half of my life in the US and have a college education from a US college.
    In other words, I am both here and there.
    It is my belief that the power and beauty of the US college/university system is in the synergy of opinions and stimulating enviorment that provokes the young generation to explore and ask questions.

    Is the email in bad taste? Yes
    Is the issue the proffessor is trying to discuss taboo or hate provoking? No

    By contrast, FB defending hate groups is in bad taste and these groups other than spreading hatred and lies have no issues worth discussing.

  2. I look at it more from a procedural standpoint taking the emotion out of it. I think that if he had found a way to integrate it into a class discussion he may have 1st amendment protection, the sending of the email however in my opinion violated the Faculty Code of conduct and he should have been punished, NOT for the content of the email but for breaking University rules.

  3. University professors and teachers in general have an obligation to present information that stimulates thought and discussion. But it is a slippery slope because it is not a level playing field. Students may feel that they cannot disagree with the position of the professor/teacher and a chilling effect occurs.

    Professors/teachers are not granted a bully pulpit to use to promote their own ideology unless it is part of the course.

    I worry about undue and unfair influence being exerted here.

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