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Long Island University: Stop Stifling Academic Freedom

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My colleague, Professor of English Harriet Malinowitz, has been denied a sabbatical at Long Island University-Brooklyn for her research on Zionism and Propaganda—and the university administration, overriding faculty recommendations, refuses to state a reason. 


Sabbaticals are rarely denied, and colleagues in her own department with much sparser publication records have been granted sabbaticals (and even tenure), strongly suggesting that her proposal received discriminatory treatment. Their motives appeared even more suspect when, after the union took it on, they offered to give her the sabbatical after all—but only on the condition that she take early retirement immediately afterward and agree that the deal “not be used or introduced as evidence” in the future.  She refused this offer.


This appears to be just the latest attack on academic freedom for scholars who challenge conventional wisdom and raise thorny questions about Israel and Palestine.  It also seems to be the latest attempt by a struggling, tuition-driven private institution to put intellectual values on the back burner while it tries to build up its donor base.


Prof. Malinowitz's sabbatical proposal was approved by her department personnel committee and co-chairs, but Dean David Cohen and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Kane violated the union's Collective Bargaining Agreement by sending a negative recommendation to the Board of Trustees without giving Prof. Malinowitz a chance to respond. And despite repeated requests for clarification, and letters of protest at the lack of transparency and fairness from other faculty, VP Kane still won't disclose the rationale for his decision.


We need to let LIU President Kimberly Cline and the rest of the LIU administration know that this raises serious questions about LIU's academic freedom and integrity.  And it’s not the first time these questions have arisen.  The university is known for its corruption and mismanagement: it's rife with upper-administration nepotism (according to a report based on tax filings, the Dean’s son, Brad Cohen, has earned a high-six-figure salary on the staff of the Provost, who is also his mother-in-law []), while students’ tuition was raised, services were cut, programs were reined in, and staff was fired in an effort to “restructure”; a fiscal farce was reported on in an Inside Higher Education article last year; LIU shamelessly plagiarized its new PR slogan from an old TWA ad campaign; on-campus violence was rationalized away when the perpetrators were basketball stars; and new low-income, underprepared students continue to be lured by false promises and a papered-over picture of LIU's staggeringly low graduation rate (8% in four years) into dead ends and permanent debt.  In the past, Harriet has spoken out on these issues as well, possibly adding retribution to the administration’s motives.  As long as they reject transparency and refuse to give any reason at all for denying the sabbatical, one can only speculate about what those reasons are; assembling the known facts may best suggest that which otherwise remains shrouded in secrecy.


It’s time LIU, along with many other contemporary institutions, became accountable to genuine educational values rather than just the bottom line—just as it’s time for scholars who write critically of Zionism to stop having their work speciously attacked and suppressed, whatever donors, corporate Board members, and politically motivated “stakeholders” might think. There has been a litany of such cases; assaults on free inquiry and expression about Zionism have embattled writers from political scientist Norman Finkelstein, anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, and Middle Eastern Studies professor Joseph Massad to President Jimmy Carter and (posthumously) the activist Rachel Corrie.


We ask LIU President Cline to use her power as President to reverse the sabbatical decision and grant Harriet Malinowitz the time to write that every serious scholar who devotes much of her time to teaching needs.  Beyond that, we ask President Cline to make LIU fully transparent about the research it does, and doesn’t, support—which is especially crucial when its decisions fly in the face of faculty recommendations. LIU’s mission statement claims that “the Campus serves as a conservator of knowledge, a source and promulgator of new knowledge, and a resource for the community it serves.”  If this claim is to be publicly recognized as legitimate, LIU needs to be accountable to the imperatives of academic freedom and open debate about all sorts of issues—whether they are popular, or palatable to the administration, or not.  The suppression of controversial scholarship anywhere is a threat to free speech, the generation of knowledge, and open discussion everywhere. 


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