Following controversy, UMass faculty look to clarify event sponsorship

  • UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

Staff Writer
Saturday, January 11, 2020

AMHERST — After a pro-Palestine panel held on campus generated controversy last year, the UMass Faculty Senate has formed an ad hoc committee to establish written guidelines on sponsorship of events.

The idea was first proposed over the summer and discussed over the fall semester at Faculty Senate meetings. The committee is expected to report to Faculty Senate in February, according to MJ Peterson, a member of the committee, secretary of Faculty Senate and political science professor at UMass.

The committee intends to craft a publicly available statement on what an academic sponsorship means, Peterson said.

“The basic goal is to deal with a gap between the way academics think about sponsoring events and the way significant segments of the public think about sponsoring events, because there is a mismatch,” she said.

Academics commonly understand that departments will sponsor an event as “a reasonable topic to discuss,” Peterson said. But parts of the public believe that event sponsorship means that a department is endorsing the views expressed, which Peterson said is not necessarily true.

But Sut Jhally, the communication department chairman and professor who organized the panels, believes that the committee is part of the university’s efforts to further distance itself from pro-Palestinian discussions on campus.

“This isn’t really an issue about sponsorship in general,” Jhally said. “It’s about one, specific issue.”

That issue, Jhally said, is “what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”

The university and Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy want “to keep that discussion off campus,” he said, “and if they can divorce that discussion from the department sponsoring it, that is one way of delegitimizing the conversation.”

Jhally said Peterson’s description of departmental sponsorships is well-known among academics, but if the guidelines are being created “for an external audience, then it’s a political issue.”

The first panel, held in May and titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” was part of the reason that the guidelines are being discussed, Peterson said.

The event, which featured prominent pro-Palestinian speakers, drew controversy when some members of the university community, including UMass Hillel, expressed concerns that the panel would stoke anti-Semitism on campus. Supporters of the event said that this backlash was an attempt to silence pro-Palestinian voices, and that criticism of the Israeli government should not be conflated with anti-Semitism.

Three students anonymously filed a lawsuit in an attempt to stop the panel from being held, but a Suffolk County Superior Court judge denied the emergency injunction.

A second panel, “Criminalizing Dissent: The Attack on BDS & American Democracy,” was held in November. Prior to this event, Subbaswamy released a statement asserting that the university was not affiliated with the panel and did not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.

“It’s clear that the chancellor has become … very attuned to this since the event on May 4,” Jhally said, “and it seems to be very, very high on his agenda. For me, the question is, why is this so high on his agenda at this time?”

Jhally has said that he believes Subbaswamy released the statement due to pressure from groups such as the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, which, prior to Subbaswamy’s statement, criticized Jhally’s panels on its website and called for Subbaswamy to “admonish UMass Amherst faculty against using the classroom to promote their own political and ideological agendas.”

Faculty Senate discussions

The idea for the committee came from faculty members “who were looking at some heated discussions about events,” Peterson said, “and also anticipating that with 2020 coming up — now here — that there was going to be continued controversy about various things, because they were anticipating that the 2020 election campaigns are going to be at least as fraught as 2016.”

“We did discuss this with the senior-most administrators, but they wanted to let the faculty lead on it,” Peterson said.

University spokesman Ed Blaguszewski deferred to Peterson when asked for comment.

Departments have their own processes for deciding whether they will sponsor an event, Peterson said, and the written guidelines will not remove this ability.

“Departments will still have freedom to decide how they want to decide whether to sponsor an event, and that’s another set of discussions going on in some departments,” Peterson said.

“All the committee is trying to do is come up with some statements that bridge the gap between what academics think sponsorship means and what parts of the public think sponsorships mean.”

At an October Faculty Senate meeting, Gonen Dori-Hacohen, an associate professor in the UMass department of communication, questioned the need for the ad hoc committee, noting, ” I think we can come up with a definition of sponsorship in between 35 seconds and a minute and a half,” according to meeting minutes.

“I’m not sure why, as an institution, we decided to do that, other than to appease some donators or some public concerns,” Dori-Hacohen said of the committee.

Provost John McCarthy said he agrees that most on campus share a common understanding of sponsorship, “but the rest of the world doesn’t get that.”

“That’s an understanding that’s sort of private to us. And as a public university and as an educational institution, I think it behooves us to clarify what we mean and to explain to the world what we mean by sponsorship.”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that the organization that criticized Jhally’s panel and called on Subbaswamy to take a stand against such events is the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis. A previous version of this story misnamed the organization.Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.