Abowd, Thomas (2014). “The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement and Violations of Academic Freedom at Wayne State University.” Chatterjee Piya, and Sunania, Maria (Eds.) The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (pp. 169-186). Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Thomas Abowd was a member of Wayne State University’s anthropology department from 2003 until 2009, when his employer decided not to renew his contract. In that time, he organized ten campus events protesting Israel’s policies towards Palestine, taught nineteen classes, of which he estimates one third dealt with the same issue, and received zero complaints from his students regarding the way he was presenting that conflict. However, he found that his point of view was incompatible with a minority of the school’s administration, (p 178) who embarked on a campaign of harassment that ultimately lead to his dismissal.
Abowd’s article is a personal narrative, but it also gives a parallel account of the BDS movement from its inception. Abowd espouses BDS because of its origins in the anti-apartheid campaign of the same name, which he believes had a major effect in defeating South Africa’s system of institutionalized racism. He provides the genealogy mostly to provide supporting examples of how similar programs have faced hostility and harassment. Columbia’s program was considered a success and had a great deal of support among the student body, but it was publicly disowned by the school’s own president nevertheless. (174)
Abowd details the success of BDS at Wayne State, noting that the movement was mostly faculty-led although it was heavily supported among the student body, whose council voted in favor of BDS during the first year he was on the faculty. Abowd portrays the administration as hopelessly out of touch with the will of its students, who are 20-22% Arab (176), favoring instead the minority view of the campus’ tiny Jewish community- Abowd says (and specifies that he means this in a literal sense) that the number of students and faculty combined who publicly endorse a pro-Israel point of view can be counted on one hand.
Abowd ultimately found himself facing a disciplinary action which was corrupted from the very beginning by the administration attempting to deny his contract-guaranteed union counsel, and which devolved from there into an overtly racialized display of hostility. One particular faculty member would badger him on several occasions over his ethnicity and religion, which he refused to disclose during the hearing. Abowd, however, left the hearing without a reprimand and with his job. Then the next year, Wayne State declined to renew his expiring contract, this following an incident which Abowd describes as ” a series of clumsy violations of [his] union contract by the dean of the college…” (182) I found this anticlimax to the story strange and opaque. Abowd offers no explanation of what the alleged violations were, or how they connected to the campaign that was waged against him by the unnamed Zionists in the school’s administration who had aligned themselves against him and his activism. One wonders if he withheld details due to an ongoing legal action, or even a non-disclosure agreement? If nothing else, it muddies the waters of his relatively clear and unambiguous narrative of harassment.
Dr. Abowd’s story certainly evokes sympathy and exposes an abusive campus culture, where the opinions of students and faculty are trumped by minority interests in the administration. However, he also mars his account in several glaring ways. First of all, when he detours to discuss Israel-Palestine as a conflict (arguably unnecessary in itself) , he demonstrates a tendency to use almost comically whitewashed language. Palestinian opposition to Israeli occupation is ” brilliant organizing of Palestinians revolting with stones and direct action…” (171) and he goes out of his way to clarify that Palestinian militancy “[poses] no capacity to win back one inch of Palestinian land…” (170). Both of those quotations refer to the First Intifada, which was an armed uprising against Israeli occupation by Hamas, PFLP as much as it was a campaign of demonstrations. It seems Dr. Abowd feels that he cannot present the uprising as both just and violent. One does not need to deny the disparity in military power between Hamas and the IDF, or the hopelessness of armed struggle against a vastly superior foe, to endorse Palestinian liberation- but Abowd still presents a strange, neutered version of Palestinian resistance, intended to be compared to over-the-top references to f-16 fighter jets being unleashed on civilian targets. The facts speak for themselves without being manicured, and a struggle against academic censorship looks weak when it is besmirched with this brand of cherry-picking.
Secondly, Abowd shows no capacity for self-reflection or criticism. All opposition to his point of view is the work of racists, right-wing agitators and other conspiratorial forces. He identifies a cabal of “shrill…anti-arab racists and right-wing Zionists” (176) as his malefactors on campus, and never considers that there could be a legitimate campus interest in pro-Israel policy. He says that Hillel events were ill-attended, and that Jews were a vanishing minority on campus. He neglects, of course, that Israel has many supporters in America who are not Jewish- conservative protestants being overwhelmingly pro-Israel, for instance.
Furthermore, he seems willfully ignorant of the fact that minorities with unpopular views will of course minimize their public presence. If the student body truly is so overwhelmingly anti-Israel, it would seem natural for individuals on the opposite side of the issue to keep their opinions discrete in public. The point, of course, is that the majority of the campus was probably on his side, but it does not make minority opinion inherently invalid. None of that excuses the cruel, unreasonable and likely illegal manor in which the WSU administration treated Dr. Abowd, but he weakens his own position by treating his political opponents as though they were his enemies. Academia can only suffer from such a rigid, exclusionary point of view.