Cary Nelson, the AAUP, and the privilege of bestowing academic freedom


Phan Nguyen | Mondoweiss | 20 janvier 2014 |

One of the most prominent US voices against the academic boycott of Israel is Cary Nelson, professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. From 2006 to 2012, Nelson served as the president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the leading organization championing academic freedom and shared governance in US postsecondary schools.

In the name of academic freedom, the AAUP has spoken out against pro-Israel attempts at campus censorship, as in the high-profile cases of Norman Finkelstein, Joseph Massad, Nadia Abu El-Haj, and last year’s BDS talk at Brooklyn College. At the same time, the AAUP has taken a position against all academic boycotts, also citing academic freedom.

Nelson’s still-prominent role in the AAUP, along with his extensive writing and advocacy for academic freedom, has allowed him to speak authoritatively against the academic boycott of Israel in outlets such as Inside Higher Ed, Democracy Now !, and Aljazeera, while being quoted extensively elsewhere.

Until recently, his left-liberal activism and limited commentary on Palestine/Israel has distanced him from charges of bias toward Israel in his opposition to the boycott. It was in this context that I decided to examine his viewpoint further, initially believing that his was a stance based on a genuine commitment to academic freedom, and I wanted to explore those arguments.

What I found instead was a conception of academic freedom that was contradictory and self-serving. His defenses of Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj were sprinkled with backhanded insults, passive aggressiveness, and condescension. His attempts at being neutral only slightly concealed his deference to Israel.

As this study demonstrates, Nelson wields his authority on academic freedom as a type of power with which he undermines those he disagrees, while pretending to defend their right to hold contrary viewpoints. In the process, I will also show that the AAUP itself, which has taken an absolutist position against academic boycotts, is not as principled or consistent on the issue as it may seem.

This study is broken into three parts and several sections, clickable below :

Part 1. Cary Nelson and the AAUP do boycotts

- Boycotting universities for labor rights, but not for other human rights

- South Africa divestment as “collateral” damage to academic freedom

- The AAUP’s resolutions on South Africa : too little, too late

- AAUP censure as a form of boycott

- The AAUP singles out Iran

- Nelson on the MLA : Yesterday it was “academic freedom” ; today it’s “process”

Part 2. “Pro-Palestinian political correctness” vs. “pro-Israeli opinion”

- Finkelstein, Massad, and Abu El-Haj : Academic freedom as charity

- Benny Morris : Academic freedom as a bonus

- Justifying Israeli closure of Palestinian schools

- In support of the “politicized campus”

Part 3. After the ASA boycott

- ASA boycott vote more legitimate than any AAUP election

- Nelson abandons the academic freedom argument

- From the AAUP to the Israel Action Network

- Cary Nelson becomes unhinged

- Conclusion : Academic freedom becomes a restraint for its biggest advocate

Read this study on Mondoweiss web site