Invoking incivility

January 2015

A Fordham University professor was accused of discrimination and uncivil conduct for his comments related to the American Studies Association’s recent resolution backing the academic boycott of Israel.

Doron Ben-Atar, a professor of history, strongly opposes the boycott and, in a Feb. 24 meeting of faculty affiliated with Fordham’s American studies program, urged his colleagues to denounce the resolution on the part of the national American Studies Association as a bigoted act. Ben-Atar advocated that the program distance itself from the ASA -- several other American studies programs withdrew as institutional members of the ASA in the aftermath of the boycott resolution -- and said that if it did not, he would resign from his affiliate status with the program and “fight the American studies program at Fordham in every forum and in every way.”

That comment would return to haunt him. On May 2, Ben-Atar received an email from Anastasia Coleman, Fordham’s director of institutional equity and compliance, requesting a meeting in regard to an allegation “that you may have acted in an inappropriate way and possibly discriminated against another person at the university.” In a subsequent email, Coleman clarified that the complaint did not involve students and was about “your behavior regarding American studies.”

Ben-Atar said it wasn’t until he received a July 7 letter from Coleman resolving the complaint that he learned more precisely what he had been accused of. The director of the American studies program, Michelle McGee, had filed a complaint against Ben-Atar alleging that he had “verbally harassed and discriminated against her by inferring that she was anti-Semitic" and communicating this to outside parties. The letter also identified as a matter of concern Ben-Atar’s statement at the February faculty meeting that he would fight against the American studies program.

The investigation found that Ben-Atar’s statements did not constitute discrimination.

“However,” Coleman wrote in the letter, “I also reported to the Office of the Provost that your words and actions about ‘fighting’ the American studies program in every forum if the program did not comply with your demands, created an atmosphere of incivility that could lead one to make a claim of intimidation or harassment. Because you initially refused to participate in the investigation without your attorney present, and in the absence of your explaining or clarifying what you meant by your stated intention to ‘fight’ against the program, you subject yourself to a possible violation of relevant sections of the University Code of Conduct, including Section 6-03.01(h) which reads ‘Engaging in, or inciting others to engage in, conduct which interferes with or disrupts any University function.’ ”

Ben-Atar -- who said that his lawyer had in fact informed Fordham’s lawyer of Ben-Atar's willingness to meet individually with Coleman -- was, as punishment, sent to the principal’s office (or provost’s office in this case) for a chat over coffee. “I didn’t realize that this was a disciplinary conversation. We discussed the episode and I said to him I think that I did nothing wrong.”

Asked what he meant when he said he would "fight" the program, Ben-Atar responded, "Obviously the way academics and intellectuals fight for their ideas -- by speaking up, persuading, writing and all the other intellectual tools in my arsenal. No one has ever asked me what I meant and to pin the case on that word is terribly disingenuous. Clearly no violence was implied -- there isn't a trace of it anywhere."

Ben-Atar objects to what he describes as the deployment of the university’s investigatory machinery to settle a debate among academics over the merits of the movement to boycott Israel.

“Administrators and colleagues failed to protect my First Amendment rights, and fed the assault on my character," Ben-Atar wrote in an op-ed on the topic he published in Tablet. “A person utterly unqualified to understand anti-Semitism sat in judgment of a scholar who publishes on and teaches the subject. A report has been issued without letting me even defend myself. My choice to have legal representation has been cited as proof of my guilt. Most painful was realizing that my commitment to fighting anti-Semitism, so central to who I am, has been used against me in a most unethical manner not only by the member of the faculty who filed the baseless charge, but also by the office of the university counsel.”

McGee did not respond to several email and phone messages seeking comment on Tuesday. Fordham’s media relations office released the following statement: “Dr. Ben-Atar is a highly respected member of Fordham University’s faculty. He was accused by another highly respected member of the university faculty of violating Fordham’s code of civility. By statute and in keeping with the long-established norms of academia, the university was required to investigate the allegations against Dr. Ben-Atar. Such investigations are by their nature confidential, both to protect the reputations of the accused and the privacy of the accuser. At the end of the investigation undertaken by the University, Dr. Ben-Atar was not sanctioned nor reprimanded, and continues to enjoy the full rights and privileges of a faculty member at Fordham.”

Debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generally and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel specifically have been heating up on U.S campuses. And the Fordham case comes amidincreasing debate about whether rules governing civility in faculty conduct may undermine academic freedom and serve to squelch unpopular speech.

A colleague of Ben-Atar’s who was present at the American studies program meeting -- and who joined him in resigning from her affiliation with the program after it opted not to distance itself from the ASAboycott resolution -- said she found it “astonishing” that Ben-Atar’s comments during the meeting became the subject of a university disciplinary investigation. “The meeting was called to discuss anti-Semitism, generally, the boycott, Fordham’s role and so forth,” said Elaine F. Crane, a distinguished professor of history.

“I thought it was a wonderful meeting that laid things out on the table,” she said. “There have been issues that have arisen over the years that were very tender, and this was one of them, but the meeting with diverse members of the faculty who had different opinions was very civil given the sensitive nature of the issue.”