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Coleman, Pollack oppose boycott of Israeli institutions

By Sam Gringlas, Daily News Editor
Published December 23, 2013

After the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions Friday, University President Mary Sue Coleman and Provost Martha Pollack issued a joint statement Monday expressing opposition to such action.

In the statement, Coleman and Pollack wrote that boycotts of academic institutions limit academic freedom and freedom of speech — key principles of the University’s mission.

“At the University of Michigan we are committed to global engagement at all levels and believe the free exchange of ideas is essential to advancing knowledge and strengthening mutual understanding,” they wrote.

The two administrators also wrote the University remains committed to strengthening relationships with Israeli universities, including collaborations with Ben Gurion University and Tel Aviv University.

Although the academic association is not the first of its kind to support action against of Israeli institutions, the ASA boycott announced Friday is one of the largest to date. Last spring, the Association for Asian American Studies membership also voted to sanction Israeli academic institutions.

Comprised of 5,000 members and 2,000 member institutions — including libraries and universities — ASA is the nation’s oldest and largest organization that promotes the study of American culture and history.

In a statement, ASA said over 60 percent of the 1252 members who participated in an online election voted in favor of the boycott.

“The resolution is in solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and it aspires to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians,” the statement read.

Proponents of the boycott believe Israeli universities are part of the system that has denied Palestinians their basic rights. As a result, the association will not support collaborations with Israeli universities or academic institutions.

University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said the University’s Department of American Culture has an ASA institutional membership, but does not take collective positions on issues considered by ASA.

She added that eight former ASA presidents, one of whom hail from the University, opposed the measure. Since ASA’s boycott decision arrived only last week, Cunningham said it’s unlikely the department has had the chance to come together to discuss the University’s statement or the ASA measure.

An ASA letter states that the ASA recognizes the right of its members to disagree and, in the spirit of academic freedom, exercises no legislative authority over its members — leaving them free to act based on their own opinions.

A staff member in the American Culture administrative offices directed all comments to the University’s Office of Public Affairs.

Since the boycott’s adoption by ASA, several influential organizations, including the American Association of Universities and the Association of American University Professors have condemned the move. Coleman served as chair of the AAU from 2011 to 2012.

The proposed boycott of Israeli institutions is not the first time the discussion of the University’s connections to Israel has surfaced.

In early December, Students Allied for Freedom and Equality slid mock eviction notices under the doors of University dormitory residences to call attention to the issue of Israeli settlements in Palestine. Later in the month, a SAFE representative spoke during the public comments section of the December meeting of the Board of Regents, asking the University to divest from Israeli companies.

CLARIFICATION: Of the eight former ASA presidents who signed the letter of opposition, only one hails from the University. A second University professor and former ASA president expressed opposition to Cunningham personally, but did not sign the letter.