Thursday, November 3, 2016

Michelle J. Anderson President, Brooklyn College

Dear Students, Staff, and Faculty:

In early October, the David Horowitz Freedom Center from Sherman Oaks, California, published what it claimed was a catalog of “The Top Ten Schools Supporting Terrorists.” Brooklyn College led the alphabetized list. 

The Horowitz Center’s credentials to make such a claim are suspect. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Horowitz Center has “become the premier financier of anti-Muslim voices and radical ideologies, as well as acting as an exporter of misinformation.” This list is an example of misinformation.

Brooklyn College never has and never will support terrorism. Brooklyn Collegeis one of the most richly diverse academic communities in the world, where students of many races, nationalities, and religious faiths study and learn in peace. Yarmulkes and hijabs are as common as band t-shirts and studded leather jackets. Our nearly 18,000 students come from 150 countries and speak more than 100 languages. As a result, our students learn to engage with difference and complexity, which fosters their inter-cultural competence and enriches the educational experience for all. 

Brooklyn College has more than 100 student groups. These groups are not funded by the college or tax dollars, but by student fees. They span an array of interests and include student government, cultural and identity-based clubs, sports teams, spiritual and faith-based groups, including an active Hillel club, student newspapers, political and social organizations, and community-service clubs. The college also has a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which has engaged in demonstrations on campus to protest certain policies or actions of the State of Israel. 

I have spent time with Brooklyn College students and faculty members across the political spectrum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I have noted that they are often eager to befriend people with whom they disagree. A devout Muslim student, for example, told me he is deeply grateful for his Orthodox Jewish faculty mentor. An active Jewish student told me that she is friends with members of SJP. “We don’t fight about the Middle East,” she said. Jews and Muslims live with sometimes divergent and strongly held beliefs but engage one another with information, perspective, and respect. We are a racially, economically, religiously, and politically diverse community, and we aim to live in peace.

Some outsiders, however, wish to foster conflict and hate. In the early morning hours of Oct. 17, posters were hung outside the gates of Brooklyn College. Styled as apparent recruitment posters for SJP, they asked, “Do you want to show your support for Hamas terrorists, whose stated goal is the elimination of the Jewish people?” Then “Join Us,” they implored, listing the names of SJP student leaders and a faculty supporter. The Horowitz Center claimed responsibility for the posters.

Around the same time, Tufts, San Francisco State, Vassar, the University of Chicago, the University of Tennessee, Berkeley, UCLA, and UC Irvine all saw similar posters naming local SJP leaders deface their campuses.

In response to the posters, a recent graduate of Brooklyn College emailed me to express his pain, arguing that SJP does not advocate terrorism and that the posters are a form of “intimidation, by smearing these students as terrorists, in order to silence their political freedom in this country.”

And although the posters were designed to intimidate the leaders of SJP, they were at times read as expressing hatred of Jews, which pained others. One Jewish student emailed me to express sadness and alarm at the hashtag “Jewhatred” on the posters.

I unequivocally condemn the hateful content of these posters. The images and words were frightening and hostile to both supporters of SJP and advocates of free speech on campus, including many Jews. In particular, they targeted individual SJP leaders with the aim of bullying them and making them vulnerable to additional harassment or worse. 

Thoughtful people on all sides condemn this act. Nadya Drukker, executive director of Tanger Hillel at Brooklyn College, for instance, emailed to emphasize, “This type of action does not represent the views of Jewish students on campus, and it does not represent Hillel’s values.”

Meanwhile, on Oct. 25, a Brooklyn College student found four swastikas carved into a female bathroom stall on the campus. I unequivocally condemn this hateful act as well. Given the enormous tragedy that befell the Jewish people--and many others--under the sign of the swastika only 70 years ago, I must emphasize my disgust. Many in our community have relatives who suffered and died in the Holocaust. Let me underscore: Antisemitism has no place at Brooklyn College. Islamophobia or other forms of bigotry directed against Muslims or Arabs also has no place here.

In years past, some have felt offended by SJP’s protests and have asked the Brooklyn College administration to ban the student group. We cannot. In their “Report to Chancellor Milliken on Allegations of Anti-Semitism at CUNY,” federal judge Barbara Jones and former prosecutor Paul Shechtman found that most demonstrations on CUNY campuses are protected speech. The report explained: 
Die-ins, mock checkpoints, and the SJP banner may offend some, but the First Amendment does not permit a public university to take action against them. As the Supreme Court has reminded, free speech may “best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.” Political speech is often provocative and challenging, but that is why it is vital to university life. If college students are not exposed to views with which they may disagree, their college has short-changed them.
As a public university, Brooklyn College is bound by the strictures of the First Amendment. We cannot suppress speech with which we disagree based on its content or viewpoint. As the Jones/Shechtman report indicates, under the Constitution, “CUNY cannot punish such speech unless it is part of a course of conduct so pervasive or severe that it denies a person’s ability to pursue an education or participate in University life.”

Moreover, as an institution of higher education, we are deeply committed to robust discourse. We cherish open dialog and engagement with ideas that test and even contradict our own. We understand that speech can harm, but we believe that the vast majority of harmful speech is best countered with more speech. We trust that reason will persuade, even with regard to the most challenging geo-political conflicts of our time.

Academic freedom not only prevents the suppression of dissident views; it also forces us to confront those whose beliefs are antithetical to our own. The opportunity to have one’s beliefs challenged, to reflect, and to consider change is the very purpose of a university. Free speech, debate, and the open exchange of ideas are the oxygen of our existence on this campus. We must engage.

I encourage every one of us to reach out beyond our comfort zone and encounter someone who is different in some way. Exchange greetings of peace and spend some time talking and trying to understand the world from their perspective. Our ability to understand perspectives different from our own is crucial to developing our analytical skills and navigating an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Let us not just reject hate; let us approach one another with openness and compassion. 

In the coming months, I would like to work with a group of students, staff, and faculty to develop a series of lectures and events for next spring that elevates our discourse around these issues. If you are interested in helping shape the dialog, please reach out to me at BCPresident@brooklyn.cuny.edu. As a public institution, we are bound to uphold free speech, but we must ensure that extremists on all sides do not have the loudest voices. We must work together to elevate the debate and to enhance our historical, cultural, and political understanding of the issues.

Yours truly,

Michelle J. Anderson
President, Brooklyn College

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