The Threat to Academic Freedom

By American Council of Trustees and Alumni, Special for  USDR

The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), a national higher education reform group, today released a new essay describing how the international movement to pressure universities to end economic and cultural exchange with Israel is undermining free speech and academic freedom on  campus.

The new essay—entitled Campus Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and the Problem of the BDS Movement—investigates the threat to academic freedom, civic discourse, and free speech posed by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement and other related initiatives that seek to squelch free expression. The report remains firmly neutral on foreign policy questions such as the two-state solution or  settlements.

Academic freedom ensures that students and faculty are free to pose questions, conduct research, and freely discuss controversial topics. However, in recent years, supporters of BDS have shouted down pro-Israel speakers on campus and challenged the legitimacy of Israeli scholars to present. Several academic disciplinary associations have voted in favor of boycott and sanctions, endorsing a political agenda outside their academic  mission.

Anti-Israel groups have attempted to pressure boards into taking a side on the territorial dispute and shut down relations with Israeli institutions, in violation of colleges’ institutional neutrality and responsibility to maintain academic freedom. Most alarming of all, media have reported examples of activists engaging in overtly anti-Semitic behavior on  campus.

Dr. Michael B. Poliakoff—president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the former vice president of a major university system, and a lifelong educator—commented on the importance of academic freedom and the problem of  BDS:

“ACTA’s research suggests that the tactics employed by the BDS movement clearly conflict with the principles of academic freedom that enable students and educators alike to engage in open discourse, inquiry, and learning. Higher education leaders and trustees should take this opportunity to reinforce their commitment to free expression and institutional neutrality,” Poliakoff  said.

“These core principles are not to be taken lightly: They represent the foundation on which our colleges and universities have built a long record of achievements and expanded opportunity for millions. Americans are fortunate to enjoy a deep commitment to academic freedom and free expression that so many other nations do  not.”

ACTA joins a growing number of policymakers, notable higher education leaders, and national professional associations raising concerns about tactics used by the BDS movement that directly conflict with academic freedom and the First Amendment. Encouragingly, members of the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association properly rejected recent attempts to pass sweeping boycott resolutions that would politicize these important disciplinary associations. State legislatures have taken steps to discourage contractors that receive state funding from joining the  boycott.


ACTA is in the process of contacting its network of more than 22,000 trustees and regents to share the report’s findings. The publication recommends actions trustees can take to protect academic freedom and individual rights, safeguard their institutional neutrality, and create a strong campus culture with diverse viewpoints. ACTA’s recommendations for higher education leaders include adopting best practices such as the Chicago Principles on free  expression.


In addition, the essay received a number of statements of support from higher education, intellectual, and civic leaders, including the  following:

“The ‘Boycott, Divest, Sanction’ movement is an especially sinister example of how colleges and universities are drawn into affirming certain political orthodoxies, to the detriment of the free exchange of  ideas.”

—George F. Will, author and syndicated  columnist

“ACTA illuminates a growing challenge to our basic freedom of expression. Denying others the right to express their ideas strikes at the heart of American  freedom.”

—The Honorable Hank Brown, U.S. Senator from Colorado, 1991–1997; past president of the University of Colorado and the University of Northern  Colorado

“The ACTA analysis of the BDS movement and academic freedom on university campuses is superb. The essay provides trustees and regents with the knowledge they need to understand the challenges to free speech and the troublesome underpinnings of the BDS movement. The authors also illuminate the legal context in which campus speech issues arise. This essay is a reliable reference work for governing  boards.”

—Mark G. Yudof, president emeritus, University of California; professor emeritus, UC–Berkeley School of Law; former chancellor, University of Texas  system

ACTA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to academic freedom, academic excellence, and accountability in higher education. We receive no government funding and are supported through the generosity of individuals and foundations. For more information, visit, follow us on Facebook or Twitter, and subscribe to our  newsletters.

SOURCE American Council of Trustees and  Alumni

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