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UCLA professor's link on course website to page supporting boycott of Israel sparks controversy

By James Barragan

April 24, 2012 8:22 a.m.

A recent controversy over a UCLA professor’s link on a course website has spurred a debate about the use of course materials in the context of academic freedom.

David Shorter, an associate professor of world arts and cultures, was the subject of a late March complaint from an organization of University of California faculty that fights anti-Semitic sentiments on college campuses. The organization, AMCHA Initiative, decried that Shorter had linked his course website to a campaign calling for a boycott of Israel.

The chair of the Academic Senate responded to the complaint by saying that Shorter was counseled to not use the link again. But Shorter said he has not agreed to do so, and was only approached informally about the issue.

During winter quarter, Shorter taught a class titled “Tribal Worldviews.” The class focused on “native people’s worldviews as they are expressed through language, mythology, ritual, health practices, languages and ecology,” according to the syllabus.

As part of the class materials, Shorter posted a link to a site advocating for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Currently, he is also listed on the site as one of the endorsers of the boycott.

His status as an endorser, as well as a complaint from a student who dropped the course, led AMCHA to file a complaint with the university’s Academic Senate and other UC officials on March 29.

Tammi Benjamin, co-founder of AMCHA and a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz, said she does not see a way that the link could be used for pedagogical reasons and believes Shorter’s use of the link is promoting activism that harms Israel.

“Our issue is not with professor Shorter,” Benjamin said. “Our issue is with the whole idea of the way in which professors are using their classrooms and resources and email lists to promote their political agendas about harming the Jewish state.”

Shorter said he recognizes why the link could be seen as problematic, but added that the subject fit within the context of his course because Palestinians are recognized as a native people by the United Nations.

Shorter also said he discusses the issue in context during his lectures on the subject and that he points out areas where he disagrees with the boycott and discusses his evolving stance on the matter.

In an email to AMCHA, Andrew Leuchter, chair of the UCLA Academic Senate, wrote that it was “not appropriate” for a UCLA faculty member to post a link as a course resource to a political petition of which he is a signatory.

Shorter was also warned that his affiliation with the boycott could be perceived as political advocacy.

But Shorter said he has not been made aware that he is in violation of specific UC policies.

Questions of intent

Shorter said the link to the boycott was intended as a resource for a research paper on Gaza, and was to be understood through the lens of indigenous studies.

The essay on Gaza was not a required assignment, Shorter said. It was one of four possible topics for a class research paper. Only about five out of 90 students chose to tackle the issue, he said.

AMCHA, however, saw the link as a means of political indoctrination, Benjamin said.

“We felt he was pushing and promoting (the boycott) in his class,” Benjamin said. “(Students) have to go to it as a requirement for the course. … He’s promoting his own political agenda and our academic integrity told us this is wrong.”

This is the first time in three years of teaching the class that he put the link on his class website, Shorter said, but he has never directly received a complaint from his students about his course material and was unaware that AMCHA had received one.

In his role as the Academic Senate chair, Leuchter directed the chair of the world arts and culture/dance department, Angelia Leung, to discuss the complaint with Shorter.

After the informal discussion, Leung reported to Leuchter that Shorter understood why the link on the course website could be problematic.

Leuchter then responded to AMCHA, stating that Shorter understood his error in judgment and would not place the link on the course website again. But Shorter said he never agreed to refrain from using the link in his course in the future.

Leuchter, who is out of the country for an academic conference, confirmed in an email that the issue was handled informally and Shorter was not censured.

The chain of events has since been characterized by Leuchter and Leung as a “misunderstanding.”

Shorter, meanwhile, said he welcomes discussion of his use of the link on his course website, but such conversations have not been initiated as of now. He said he has not personally received a formal written complaint from AMCHA, the UCLA Academic Senate or any UC official regarding the link on his course website.

Questions of academic freedom

On April 16, media outlets reported that the UCLA Academic Senate had counseled Shorter to take the link off his course website.

Two days after initial reports arose, the Californian Scholars for Academic Freedom, which consists of 134 members across 20 California institutes of higher learning, sent a letter to Leuchter that criticized the handling of the issue.

In the letter, the group expressed concern about how the situation may be a possible violation of academic freedom, Leuchter’s possible overstepping of his position’s authority, and the “honoring of complaints by a clearly partisan political group over collegiality and protocol regarding treatment of tenured faculty at UCLA” in reference to AMCHA.

The letter also expressed concern about releasing information about the issue to the press without Shorter’s knowledge.

AMCHA, for its part, wants faculty to come up with clear guidelines about appropriate uses of academic freedoms and when they are being abused, Benjamin said.

Since the news was initially reported, Shorter said he has filed a complaint with the UCLA Academic Senate’s Academic Freedom Committee about the handling of the situation.

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James Barragan
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