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Massachusetts Society of Professors

The Union of Faculty and Librarians at UMass Amherst

Statement from the MSP: Valuing the free exchange of ideas

In response to the Chancellor’s statement about the panel "Criminalizing Dissent", the MSP Executive Board composed a response.  MSP has always defended academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas on campus. 

Statement from the MSP: Valuing the free exchange of ideas  (November 6, 2019)

On October 21, 2019, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy released a statement condemning an event, “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS and American Democracy,” organized by faculty on the UMass Amherst campus for November 12. We were surprised to see the chancellor depart from his past strong support for academic freedom and open exchange of ideas on our campus. The Massachusetts Society of Professors calls upon the administration to remain steadfast in the defense of UMass faculty and librarians.

The MSP recognizes the intense pressure the chancellor faces when events on campus tackle controversial issues. We are concerned that in this case, certain right-wing talking points were embraced and repeated, to the detriment of faculty and students. Most distressing, the chancellor repeated anonymous, vague, and unsupported claims against the invited speakers, who include several public intellectuals of color often subject to racist attacks.

We were further concerned that the chancellor undermined the integrity of faculty involved in the event by accusing them of organizing a “one-sided, polarizing event.” This language is used by opponents of academic freedom who try to shut down debates that do not include their preferred perspective. To condemn a presentation because it does not cover all points of view on a topic feeds reactionary and anti-intellectual currents, and fundamentally misunderstands the nature of academic and political discourse.

The MSP has always stood for the free and open exchange of ideas on campus. We are opposed to statements or actions that cause a chilling effect on the discussion of controversial political issues. Faculty and librarians must not fear that their reputations will be damaged if they organize, endorse, or participate in specific events, including discussions of Palestinian rights, BDS, anti-Semitism, and other topics. As long as it avoids racial stereotyping and offensive tropes, the act of criticizing a particular government—whether of Israel, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, the US, or any other country—is legitimate and can create fruitful dialogue. Our students will feel safest on campus if we reject hate, harassment, and racism, and instead model civil and productive political discourse around difficult subjects.

The MSP believes that the mission of the university requires an environment of open intellectual, social, cultural, and political inquiry. UMass has embraced the slogan “Be revolutionary,” and standing up for revolutionary ideas takes courage. We ask the administration to return to a robust defense of academic freedom and support the full exploration of ideas at UMass Amherst.