No charges, no end in e-mail fight
June 25, 2009
Inside Higher Ed
In a limited sense, the case of William I. Robinson is over.
On Wednesday, he was notified that a faculty committee had found no "probable cause" to undertake a full investigation of complaints filed against him related to e-mail messages he sent to his students in which he compared Israelis and Nazis. Further, he was notified that the administration at the University of California at Santa Barbara had accepted the faculty members' analysis, and that the case was over -- without his ever having faced formal charges before a disciplinary committee.
Supporters of Robinson, a tenured professor of sociology, agreed with those findings. But they said that grievances filed over e-mail messages sent in January should have been seen immediately as baseless, and that allowing the case to linger for months endangered the academic freedom of Robinson and others.
"We're pleased, but this decision is too late," said Yousef K. Baker, a graduate student and one of the organizers of the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB. "I don't think it is enough for the university just to say that this case is terminated. The university needs to be held accountable for the chilling effect that their tardiness in doing what they have done now has created."
In a statement, Robinson said that he is waiting for "a public apology from the university as a first step in clearing my name after it has smeared my reputation and undermined my professional integrity." He added that he plans to file a grievance over how he was treated in the case.
The case has attracted attention far beyond Santa Barbara, with the American Association of University Professors last month calling on the university to "pause" its inquiries because of the academic freedom issues involved. Cary Nelson, national president of the AAUP, said Wednesday night that "although I am pleased that the Robinson case has been closed, I am also concerned that unnecessary investigations of faculty exercising their academic freedom are having a serious chilling effect on our more vulnerable or less courageous colleagues."
The dispute dates to an e-mail message that Robinson sent to the approximately 80 students in January in a course about sociology and globalization. The e-mail contained an article criticizing the Israeli military's actions in Gaza. Part of the e-mail was an assemblage of photos from Nazi Germany's persecution of Jews and from Israel's actions in Gaza. Students were invited to look at the "parallel images." A message from Robinson argued that Gaza would be like "Israel's Warsaw."
In February, the Anti-Defamation League's Santa Barbara office wrote to Robinson to protest the e-mail and to urge him to repudiate it. "While your writings are protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom, we rely upon our rights to say that your comparisons of Nazis and Israelis were offensive, ahistorical and have crossed the line well beyond legitimate criticism of Israel," the letter said. It went on to say that the "tone and extreme views" in his e-mail were "intimidating to students," and that using his university e-mail to send "material that appears unrelated to" his course violated university standards for faculty members.
Following that letter, two students in the course dropped the class and filed complaints against Robinson. One student wrote that she felt "nauseous" upon reading the e-mail, and felt it was inappropriate. A second student complaint accusing Robinson of being unprofessional -- also from a student who dropped the course after receiving the e-mail -- said that Robinson has "clearly stated his anti-Semitic political views in this e-mail."
Under Santa Barbara's faculty governance system, such complaints go to a "charges officer" and then -- if they are serious -- a committee may be formed, somewhat like a grand jury, to determine whether formal charges should be brought against the professor. Robinson and his supporters have maintained that the e-mail was so clearly covered by academic freedom that the faculty charges officer should have dropped the matter. Instead, a committee was formed to determine whether the charges merited consideration by the standing committee that considers such allegations and can recommend sanctions against a professor. It was that non-standing committee that determined that there was no need to bring charges for a full investigation. Under the university's rules, no official statement is released about why charges were not brought. But earlier memos suggested that the two rules Robinson was accused of violating were measures that bar faculty members from "significant intrusion of material unrelated to the course" and "use of the position or powers of a faculty member to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for arbitrary or personal reasons." (Many of the documents related to the student complaints and various university communications about the situation may be found on the Web site of the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB.)
The position of Robinson and his supporters has been that Israel's conduct in Gaza was in every way appropriate as a topic for discussion in a class on global issues, and that the complaints filed against him were a simple case of students (and some pro-Israel groups) disagreeing with Robinson's analysis. Robinson could not be reached Wednesday, but last month he told Inside Higher Ed that the charges against him were "absolutely absurd." He noted that he is Jewish and said that he abhors anti-Semitism, and that his academic freedom is being violated by the university taking seriously charges that link his e-mail criticisms of Israel's government with anti-Semitism. "This is all because I have criticized the policies of the State of Israel."
Stand With Us, a pro-Israel group that has been organizing petition drives to back the idea of a full investigation of Robinson, issued a statement Wednesday night questioning the university's decision. "We are surprised and disappointed that UCSB chose not to uphold their standards for professional conduct, and that it has blurred the lines between responsible education and the peddling of propaganda. It is unfortunate that students will continue to be victims of partisan indoctrination and misinformation," said the statement, from Roz Rothstein, international director of the organization.
The Stand With Us Web site features analysis on why the group does not feel Robinson's e-mail should be protected by academic freedom.
"We applaud the UCSB administration's decision to investigate whether Robinson abused the Faculty Code of Conduct guidelines. This investigation is critical for stemming the politicization of academia and the rising academic support for anti-Israel propaganda," says the Web site (in a posting that does not reflect Wednesday's news that the investigation is over). "The administration will be under intense political pressure from those who oppose the investigation. Let the administration know that there is also strong public support for their decision."
The Academic Senate at the university has passed a resolution to study how this investigation was handled -- and many faculty members have questioned whether the process used was appropriate, with many critics noting that pro-Israel groups have encouraged criticism of Robinson.
Paul Desruisseaux, associate vice chancellor for public affairs at Santa Barbara, said that because this case is a personnel matter, the university would have no comment on the case. He said that it was important to note that the university "places great importance on the defense of academic freedom," but that academic freedom "does not exempt a faculty member from the provisions of the faculty Code of Conduct," or limit the ability of people inside or outside the university to file grievances.
Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, blogged in support of the university's decision Wednesday. "Stripped of the jargon of sociology and the politicization of the issue by both sides, the question becomes whether or not the professor in what essentially amounts to a global politics class can give his opinions about global politics," he said. "While many of his critics would prefer to see the Professor Robinsons of the world denied this right, in the end, we all benefit from classroom and academic discussions in which the exchange of ideas is as free as possible."
- No charges, no end in e-mail fight, PDF, 50.3 KB , Inside Higher Ed