While an ad hoc charges committee of UCSB’s Academic Senate looks into accusations of faculty misconduct against William Robinson – the professor who sent out an e-mail in January comparing the Israeli occupation of Gaza with the Nazi’s handling of the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II – the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB has been working overtime trying to prove that Robinson was within his right to send the email. The committee, which was formed shortly after complaints were filed by two students in January, recently enlisted the help of the Pennsylvania-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), an organization similar to the American Civil Liberties Union but more narrowly focused. FIRE Individual Rights Defense Program director Adam Kissel said that his organization was aware of the issue but also that Robinson initiated contact.
In a June 10 letter addressed to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, Kissel wrote that faculty members have complained of a “chilling effect,” and that continuation of the Academic Senate investigation constitutes further violation against Robinson’s right to send out material such as the e-mail – which placed images of Nazi and of Israeli soldiers side-by-side for comparison – to students. The letter gives Yang until June 24 to respond, after which FIRE has threatened to launch a media campaign in retaliation. “We’re entirely non-partisan,” said Kissel of his organization. “It doesn’t matter to us what view it is that is being investigated or punished. What matters is whether a view is being investigated or punished.”
One of the two students in Robinson’s class who filed complaint said that she had sent an e-mail asking whether or not it was an assignment, to which she said he replied, “For your interest.” Both students then proceeded send formal complaints to the university administration, and letters to the Anti Defamation League (ADL) and Stand With Us (SWU) – two anti-Semitism watchdog groups. “Just because it wasn’t assigned doesn’t mean it wasn’t relevant [to the class],” said Kissel, asserting that his organization is certain that the email was in fact relevant to course material. “You don’t need an academic senate investigation at all to see that it’s protected under the canons of academic freedom.”
From the beginning of Robinson’s ordeal, the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom has been staunch in its defense of the professor, maintaining that he was well within his right to send the controversial e-mail. The group has also said that ADL and SWU are applying pressure on UCSB’s faculty and administrators to silence critics of Israel, an accusation that ADL president Abraham Foxman emphatically denied. “The question is, should a professor spam his class with any old material without invitation for discussion or debate while jamming his own political views down [his students’] throats?” said Roz Rothstein, SWU’s Executive Director, who called the e-mail a one-sided polemic. “If he brought this up in class as regular course material it would be more correct, because debate could be raised in class.
Kissel said that typically, when FIRE launches a media campaign, they send press releases to media outlets where the school is located and focus on publications that will get the attention of the higher education community. “We tend to win our cases without resorting to legal action. We don’t even litigate. We have a number of attorneys on staff to make sure that we don’t make a mistake on the law,” he said, adding that they are often attacked by liberals for defending conservative professors and vice versa.
Currently, the ad hoc committee – the membership of which has been kept under wraps by the Academic Senate – is still conducting the investigation. Paul Desruisseaux, UCSB’s public affairs officer, said that he doesn’t know when they will announce further action, although he surmised that some sort of conclusion will be reached in the near future.