Joe Lockard

In the aftermath of the latest cycle of violence between Hamas and Israel, academic supporters of the Palestinian cause circulated a statement titled "Gender Studies Departments in Solidarity with Palestinian Feminist Collective."

This statement roundly condemns Israel as an alleged settler colonial society and labels it a practitioner of apartheid. Its militant language of condemnation repeats familiar charges against Israel.  

What should be of particular concern to the Arizona Jewish community is that two units in the University of Arizona system, along with their unit heads, signed this statement taking a partisan political position.

Among the signatories are the Women and Gender Studies Program at Northern Arizona University and the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, University of Arizona. 

Whether we are in sympathy or disagreement with the statement in question is irrelevant. It is a norm in U.S. public institutions of higher education, a norm often enforced by statute, that neither university administrators nor administrative units make official political commitments. Individual faculty members can do so, as can groups of faculty members, but not administrative units representing a university.

A disclaimer accompanying a departmental political stand cannot eliminate concern that it will be understood as representing the institution. Worse still, students, staff and faculty who disagree with the statement will feel cast out of the department or excluded from participation. The chilling effect inevitably will lead to self-censorship. People sympathetic toward Israel will choose not to affiliate with the program.

Irrespective of one’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the departmental and unit endorsements at Northern Arizona University and University of Arizona of this solidarity statement appear to violate the Arizona Board of Regents policy 6-905(A) on political activity and ARS §15-1633 regarding university neutrality on public policy issues.  

In the case of U of A, this endorsement flagrantly violates that university’s policy: “University units may not engage in political activities or take positions on public policy controversies.”  The department chair surely knew of the policy, so departmental endorsement would seem no less than a direct challenge against this university rule and its administrative enforcement. 

At NAU, such endorsement would appear to violate its Human Resources Policy Manual 5:10 on lobbying and political activity, which states, “An employee shall not, directly or by implication, use the name of the university or his/her affiliation with the university in the endorsement of political candidates, initiatives, referenda or in supporting or opposing a position on other political issues.”  The NAU Women and Gender Studies Program indisputably used the university’s name to support a position on this political issue. 

It does not matter whether it is Palestine or Israel with which these two university units are siding. What is important is neither administrative unit has the right to take sides. To do so violates their educational mission. At their best, universities provide educational forums where adversaries and competing ideas can engage on peaceful terms. 

This solidarity statement eschews such neutrality. It propounds, “We do not subscribe to a ‘both sides’ rhetoric…”  To the contrary, progress towards Israeli-Palestinian peace needs both sides. Israelis and Palestinians have a right to fair treatment and equal consideration from Arizona’s public universities. 

The Arizona Board of Regents needs to make clear to all universities under its jurisdiction that departments, programs, and units must not take or endorse partisan political positions. JN

Joe Lockard is an associate professor in the English Department of Arizona State University.