Spend any time on a university campus, and the official culture will become obvious in short order. Bigotry and prejudice against blacks, gays, or women simply isn’t tolerated. Even a hint of racism or sexism is met with quick and decisive punishment. But anti-Israel rants on California’s public-college campuses seem to be tolerated, politely ignored, or even tacitly condoned by the powers that be.
Consider the case of David Klein, a math professor at California State University, Northridge (CSUN). Klein maintains a page on the university’s web server having nothing to do with mathematical physics, teacher education, or standardized testing, his main areas of research. Rather, the page is devoted to the evils of the state of Israel. Students and other members of the university can learn that “Israel is the most racist state in the world at this time” and that the Jewish state engages in “ethnic cleansing.” Visitors can discover, furthermore, that the answer to the question “Aren’t Palestinians equally responsible for the violence?” is an emphatic “No.” Klein provides links to an assortment of Israel haters and, of course, calls for a boycott of Israeli products and U.S. companies that do business with Israel.
It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen to a professor who used the university’s website to post content opposed, say, to illegal immigration or legal abortion, especially if the subject was outside his academic field. Administrators would demand that the pages disappear, and they’d cite the university’s policies, chapter and verse. We know university administrators would loudly condemn a professor who maintained a website off campus that had a “deleterious effect on the university’s reputation.” That’s what happened in 2010, when CSUN erupted in outrage over economics professor Kenneth Ng’s personal site, Bigbabykenny.com—which, his critics claimed, promoted illegal sex tourism in Thailand. Both the Gender and Women’s Studies Department and the Asian-American Studies Department publicly denounced Ng, and several students and faculty demanded that he take the site down or lose his job. But while university officials blasted the site, they stopped short of forcing Ng to take it down. Ng removed the site anyway, after weeks of public pressure. “I think he realized he’s putting the university in an awkward position,” CSUN provost Harold Hellenbrand told the campus newspaper, adding, “We expect that [faculty] act at a higher level than their profession requires.”
Yet no one within the CSUN community has condemned Klein, and his webpage remains active—though it clearly violates university policies, which state that “use of computers, networks, and computing facilities for activities other than academic purposes or University business is not permitted.” The university also prohibits associating its name with boycotts and other politically motivated activity. CSUN further retains the right to remove “any defamatory, offensive, infringing, or illegal materials” from its website at any time.
A recent administrative review, however, cleared Klein of any violations. “The University does uphold and preserve the principles of academic freedom—and Professor Klein’s right to express his views,” CSUN president Jolene Koester said in a statement. “Our review affirmed that this right extends to the use of an individual’s web pages, as part of the University website, as a vehicle for expression.” Koester apparently is uninterested in discussing the matter further. UC Santa Cruz language lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, who heads the AMCHA Initiative, an organization to counteract anti-Semitism on college campuses, challenged the president in a November 22 e-mail. “If you choose not to remove Professor Klein’s anti-Semitic material from the CSUN website,” Rossman-Benjamin wrote, “we will presume that it is because the University finds nothing ‘defamatory, offensive, infringing, or illegal’ about these webpages, and is unconcerned with the effects they may have on CSUN students, parents, community members, and taxpayers.” Koester’s e-mailed reply: “Too bad.” After Rossman-Benjamin forwarded Koester’s reply to top Cal State officials and several state politicians with oversight authority, Koester explained lamely that she’d meant to send the e-mail to “university staff” and that “the comment ‘too bad’ was meant to express to internal staff regret about the controversy and the distress it has caused.”
Koester is retiring this year, but it’s unlikely that the administrators who remain after she’s gone will be of much help. Hellenbrand, who will take over as interim president, cosigned a November open letter from Klein to Cal State University Chancellor Charles Reed, arguing that the university should not permit study abroad in Israel. All but four of the 127 signatories on Klein’s letter are from CSUN. (The university will continue the program.)
Contrary to Koester’s claims, the David Klein matter has nothing to do with academic freedom and everything to do with official hypocrisy. A professor has the right to speak on his own behalf, but not to use a public university’s resources to smear Israel as a murderous oppressor. In the private sector, such conduct would be grounds for censure or termination. A university in the public trust should be held to a standard at least as high.