Remove AIPAC Exec Christenson from Olaf's Institute for Freedom & Community Advisory Board

UPDATE 5/11/17: After receiving feedback from several concerned students and faculty members, we have changed the language of the original petition in several places. We have also added an addendum addressing some of the objections raised in the last several days. We are very grateful to all parties who have supported us, provided useful feedback, or both.


Oles for Justice in Palestine call upon the St. Olaf College Board of Regents to remove Arne Christenson from the Advisory Board of the Institute for Freedom and Community at St. Olaf College (the Institute). As an organization, we have previously sought the removal of Mr. Christenson from this role to no avail. What follows is justification for our long-held position that Mr. Christenson ought not be affiliated with the Advisory Board of the Institute for Freedom and Community because his presence poses a serious threat to academic freedom at St. Olaf College.

We doubt Mr. Christenson’s capacity to exert the objectivity needed to accomplish the goals of the Institute’s Advisory Board due to his continued leadership in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). We put forth the following principle, to be applied universally when evaluating the fittingness of an appointment to a non-faculty advisory position affiliated with St. Olaf College: No individual should be appointed to a non-faculty advisory position when their primary means of employment is established to be an advocacy or policy position on any side of a decidedly divisive public issue which is or might reasonably be construed to be a conflicting interest which could inhibit in any way the aims of the College or its subsidiary institutes and programs. Although we acknowledge that the phrase “decidedly divisive public issue” is less than absolute, any person of good judgement should quickly recognize the sorts of issues we mean to specify. A nonexhaustive list of organizations whose employees and executives we deem unfit for service on a College-affiliated advisory board like the Institute for Freedom and Community’s because of their involvement in the arbitration of decidedly divisive public issues includes the American Life League, Answers in Genesis, Focus on the Family, NARAL Pro-Choice America, the National Rifle Association, as well as AIPAC.

The fact that Mr. Christenson’s appointment violates the very reasonable principle of objectivity presented above is, in our eyes, sufficient grounds for his removal from the Advisory Board. There are, however, several issues particular to AIPAC which make the presence of one of their executives on the Advisory Board especially objectionable. AIPAC has a history of actively lobbying for the passage of legislation that aims to limit freedom of inquiry and expression on college campuses. The most recent example of this pattern comes from 2016, when AIPAC supported the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act (H.R. 6421), which was deemed unconstitutional by multiple sources.

AIPAC has also released publications that attempt to vilify pro-Palestinian activists on college campuses. One of these publications, The AIPAC College Guide: Exposing the anti-Israel campaign on campus (1984), from which AIPAC has never distanced itself, profiles anti-Israel advocacy from students and faculty on more than one hundred U.S. campuses. In this book, AIPAC delineates its strategies for “defeating the [pro-Palestinian] campaign” on college campuses. “Strengthening and expanding AIPAC’s campus presence” is the first of these strategies. “AIPAC, through its presence on campus, arms Israel’s friends with the information and training they need to deal effectively with the anti-Israel campaign.” The appointment of AIPAC’s Managing Director for Policy and Politics to the Advisory Board indisputably constitutes “AIPAC presence on campus.” Upon reading such excerpts from an official AIPAC publication, it is difficult to perceive Mr. Christenson’s appointment to the Advisory Board as conducive to objectivity and openness, since his organization’s official strategy for dealing with its enemies on college campuses is to infiltrate these campuses and “arm” pro-Israel students for encounters with students who disagree with them. Clearly, professional affiliation with an organization that actively promotes such strategies is irreconcilable with the Institute’s goal of fostering “an environment of civil and respectful disagreement in which all students are encouraged to share their ideas, regardless of how unpopular their ideas may be.” We urge the Board of Regents, which is responsible for appointments and removals from the Advisory Board to recognize that accomplishing this goal is incompatible with the presence of any individuals whose professional agendas include the silencing of dissidents and the disruption of “civil and respectful disagreement.”

Mr. Christenson’s role on the Advisory Board imparts unto him powers relevant to the distribution and allocation of College resources. As a member of the Advisory Board, Christenson “advises the director of The Institute with a particular eye to ensuring that The Institute fulfills its mission and thus honors the agreements made with the donors who support its work.” The ability to endorse or censure allocations of Institute funds and assess the efficacy of previous expenditures is implicit in Mr. Christenson’s position. As Mr. Christenson also currently serves as the Managing Director for Policy and Politics at AIPAC, his daily life and livelihood depend upon his furtherance of a particular political agenda which has shown itself to be opposed to free and open political discourse at colleges and universities. With such a vested interest in a contentious political issue which demonstrably falls within the scope of Institute affairs, Mr. Christenson’s ability to assess the handling and distribution of finite resources in an unbiased manner is almost certainly compromised. Since Advisory Board meetings are closed to the public and to the Director’s Council, any such biases of Mr. Christenson’s remain unchecked by the students, faculty, and staff of St. Olaf College, that the Institute aims to serve, as well as by the rest of the Institute.

We affirm the virtue of intellectual freedom in academia and we believe that Mr. Christenson’s involvement with the Institute for Freedom and Community undermines this end. It may, however, be objected that his removal is an infringement of academic freedom. Various parties have made this argument in the past. Therefore, we endeavor to show that this objection lacks substance because it rests upon a misunderstanding of academic freedom.

We look favorably upon St. Olaf College’s own official positions on academic freedom which uphold the right of both students and faculty to inquire and express themselves freely in academic settings. We note that the College implicitly limits the right to academic freedom to only those members of the College community directly engaged with academic inquiry (that is, students and faculty) by explicitly assigning this right only to students and faculty. Thus we feel safe in asserting that academic freedom is not a right explicitly afforded to other members of the St. Olaf College community who are permanently employed in, or appointed to, non-faculty positions. As such, it is fallacious to claim that the call for the removal of Mr. Christenson from his position on the Institute’s Advisory Board is a violation of academic freedom, since this is not a right extended to individuals associated with the College in non-faculty, non-student roles, such as Mr. Christenson’s. It should thus be clear that the removal of Mr. Christenson from the Advisory Board reclaims the liberties promised to students and faculty without infringing upon the rights of any other member of the St. Olaf community.

Please sign our petition calling for the removal of Arne Christenson from his position on the Advisory Board of St. Olaf College’s Institute for Freedom and Community and voice your support for academic freedom at St. Olaf College.

ADDENDUM 1 (5/10/17)

In conversation surrounding this petition, we have received useful feedback from our supporters and from people whose view of the matter did not align with the one promoted in this document. We are thankful for the good-willed comments we’ve received, and we take seriously every concern raised. For the sake of continued discussion of the issues at hand, we would like to note the most salient critiques we have received and offer earnest responses to them.


Objection 1: The Institute’s Advisory Board bears no responsibility to present the issues it discusses in a balanced fashion. Nowhere does the Institute claim this as one of its duties. It is clear that Mr. Christenson is not an unbiased party, but this is alright because the Institute does not explicitly make the balanced presentation of issues one of its aims.

We Respond: On the contrary, the Institute claims to offer “a year-round series of guest lectures and public debates by nationally prominent thinkers, political commentators, and social activists, representing a broad and balanced range of opinion and ideological perspectives.” The Institute also states that its aim to begin “the development of a separate website, institute.stolaf.edu, [to] provide balanced resources on issues, streaming video from events, registration links, program details, engagement opportunities, and more.” So, it is clear that the Institute aims for balance in at least some of its programming, and a disruption of balance is antithetical to the goals it has set for itself, but this is exactly what Mr. Christiansen’s service on accomplishes.


Objection 2: The Institute’s Advisory Board does not have sufficient power to infringe upon academic freedom in any meaningful sense.

We Respond: The Advisory Board “advises the director of The Institute with a particular eye to ensuring that The Institute fulfills its mission and thus honors the agreements made with the donors who support its work.” As far as we are aware, there has never been a public disclosure of what, exactly, these agreements between the Institute and its supporters entail. In previous conversation with better-informed parties, we have gathered that a major role of the Advisory Board is to ensure that the money given to the Institute by its supporting donors is spent as they intended it to be. Such funds may be used in pursuit of Institute Goal 7 (Other High Impact Learning Experiences): “Funding internships, funding undergraduate research opportunities, off-campus study experiences. Funding grants for faculty to develop other courses or components of courses that use high impact learning experiences and that further the goals of The Institute.” It is very possible, however, that  some student or faculty member could solicit funds from the Institute in order to pursue some course of study or some experience consistent with the goals of the Institute but which challenged the doctrine defended by Mr. Christenson’s employer AIPAC. Mr. Christenson’s presence on the Advisory Board whose job is to assess the efficacy of such funding might, however, unfairly inhibit this scholar’s work. Granted, everyone has issues which they hold dear to their hearts, but there is a categorical difference between a member’s personal concern for issues like taxation or climate change and an executive AIPAC lobbyist’s professional/vocational concern for the Palestine-Israel conflict which makes the presence of biases of the first kind far less objectionable than the presence of stronger biases like Mr. Christenson’s.

The operations of the Advisory Board are so shrouded in mystery that it seems reasonable to consider Mr. Christenson’s presence somewhat suspicious. What particular skills does Mr. Christenson’s bring at the margin that dramatically outweigh his probable bias? If none, why was he appointed in the first place?


Objection 3: It is not the case that “academic freedom” applies only to faculty and students. Mr. Christenson and other non-student, non-faculty members of the advisory board are also entitled to academic freedom.

We Respond: Myriad authorities make clear that academic freedom is not the intrinsic right of every member of a college or university community. Rather, it is a right afforded to students and faculty. The most influential articulation of academic freedom comes from the American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) “1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure.” More recently, Cary Nelson, the former president of the AAUP, formulated academic freedom as a principle which applies only to faculty and students. It should thus be evident that academic freedom, as used in common parlance, does not apply to any members of college or university communities who cannot be categorized as either faculty or students.

It is the duty of St. Olaf’s students and faculty to identify and confront threats to their academic freedom wherever they may arise. The presence of outside interests on an advisory board whose exact duties have never been clearly delineated is something that supporters of academic freedom should not support without careful reflection. We maintain that Mr. Christenson’s involvement with the Institute for Freedom and Community is problematic not simply because we oppose his particular political positions, but because there is something alarming about the involvement of an actively-employed lobbyist with a board whose duty is to make important decisions about the allocation of scarce resources among students and scholars whose work often challenges the interests of said lobbyist’s employer.

 

 

This petition will be delivered to:
  • St. Olaf College Board of Regents
  • St. Olaf College President's Leadership Team

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