Since the events of October 7th 2023, there has been an alarming rise in threats to academic freedom and the right to political protest on college campuses in the US and around the world. University presidents and administrators have been pressured by trustees, donors, alumni, and elected officials to police and punish students and faculty for campus protest and even for speech within the classroom. The mainstream media has relentlessly depicted student activism as threats to public safety. These developments have caused real harm to students and faculty. Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian incidents are sharply on the rise, as are antisemitic incidents, and students and faculty have been punished for defending the rights of Palestinians and attempting to situate and historicize the current conflict. In this climate of intimidation and repression, students and even faculty feel silenced or pressured to self-censor in the classroom, for fear that even speech that falls within the bounds of legitimate academic inquiry will prove punishable.
In light of this situation, the Department of English at NYU affirms our steadfast commitment to academic freedom. This department’s intellectual community depends on exercising this freedom, especially when it is imperiled by political events and political pressures. The principle of academic freedom emerged under specific historical and political conditions that have often limited its scope, requiring us to constantly renegotiate and renew our commitment to this important protection for teaching and research. In particular, discussions of Palestinian identity and self-determination have routinely been censored on US college campuses for decades, as an ”exception” to protections for other kinds of academic speech. We hold that academic freedom is a protection that extends to our entire community of instructors and students, on any topic, without exception.
As scholars and teachers, our role is to model and facilitate rigorous and thoughtful intellectual inquiry about even the most difficult and politically contentious topics. In particular, the Department of English is committed to scholarship that “grapple[s] with the imperialist and colonialist underpinnings of the English language and its literatures, its relationship to power and whiteness, and its mediating work in the spread of Western domination,” as we wrote in our May 2021 Department Statement on Diversity and Antiracism. Fields of study that bear on Palestinian dispossession and the Israel/Palestine conflict are heavily represented among our department’s faculty and students. We are aware that students and faculty in these fields may be especially vulnerable in this moment, simply by doing their work and teaching their classes. We know that students and faculty on campuses across the country are also confronting anxieties about doxxing, harassment, and even violence, whether because of their identities, their speech, or their political protest.
The classroom must be a space where students and faculty alike can speak freely, because if we cannot, then we certainly cannot learn. When students and faculty are subjected to surveillance or intimidation, from within the classroom or outside it, the conditions for learning are similarly undermined. The department pledges our moral and practical support to students, staff, and faculty subjected to harassment, doxxing, or violence. While ideas and concepts are up for debate, what is never up for debate is our department’s commitment to an antiracist classroom, in which no one is subjected to racism of any kind, including Islamophobia and antisemitism, or to discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity or religion.