The Intellectual Integrity of Our Spaces: The Proposed Boycott of International Academic Conferences

Protest in support of refugees and immigrants, Battery Park, New York City, January 29 2017. @Claire Potter, All Rights Reserved.

Protest in support of refugees and immigrants, Battery Park, New York City, January 29 2017. @Claire Potter, All Rights Reserved.

On January 30, the American Historical Association (AHA) joined numerous scholarly organizations in condemning Donald Trump’s executive order of January 27, 2017. This act closed the United States border to travelers, migrants and refugees from seven countries, including many legal residents, for ninety days. Although spokespeople for the Trump administration deny this interpretation, the order is generally understood to target Muslims, and is perceived as discriminatory by many, including a politically diverse coalition of Christian and Jewish groups. In response, scholars from around the globe have begun to sign on to a boycott of international conferences held in the US. “We the undersigned,” it reads in part, “take action in solidarity with those affected by Trump’s Executive Order by pledging not to attend international conferences in the US while the ban persists. We question the intellectual integrity of these spaces and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them.”

This morning it was brought to my attention that this boycott, and the AHA’s response to the executive order itself, was being discussed on an AHA members’ forum as an offense to US academic freedom. I do not have the right to reproduce what was said on a private forum, but as a longtime member of the AHA, I felt compelled to answer that charge at greater length than the forum allows, and posted my thoughts here.

Fellow historians seem to have missed the point of the international boycott, and of academic boycotts more generally. This action by international scholars has no connection to the American Historical Association, the membership of which has, in fact, repeatedly voted against academic boycotts in its annual business meetings. The Association has not endorsed this new boycott either, as one historian implies. Instead, the AHA has published an evidence-based response to unfolding events, articulating the threat to academic freedom that the Trump administration’s travel ban on our colleagues, our students, and their families, has itself launched.

I am also surprised that the fact of this boycott became an opportunity for some colleagues to promote the notion that the Trump executive order is similar to proposals or policy decisions made by Democrats. It is not.  I am quite sure that there are similarities and points of comparison that are worth discussion and debate. I am also sure that there are continuities between the Bush II and Obama administrations, and the Clinton and Obama Doctrines, as regards international migration. These are worth debating, as is the question of whether the Obama administration created a legally plausible foundation for the Trump order in its own immigration policies. This is a debate that ought to occur as all of us move forward to contemplate the perils and promise of United States international relations, at this moment and in the future.

However, I doubt that such debates will lead us to the conclusion that there is no change over time, or that, upon reflection, Americans and legal residents have been living in this state of chaos and threat for decades. Nor will they lead us to the conclusion that American scholars have become the victims of international colleagues seeking to do us harm. The damage to academic and other freedoms that we are facing from this executive order is not theoretical, as damage from the growing international boycott might be; it has been immediate, tangible and personal. In addition to legal travellers detained, handcuffed, and deported last week, attorneys suing the Trump administration have charged that over 100,000 legally issued visas have been revoked. Many of these visa holders are scholars, researchers and students.

Many of us are now missing collaborators and colleagues because of the Trump administration’s order; the extent and nature of the damage to American universities, which depend on international students and scholars for their intellectual work and fiscal health, cannot yet be calculated. At my own institution, numerous international students’ education has already been interrupted; moreover, it is unclear whether degree candidates from as-yet unaffected countries in regions affected by terrorism will choose to return next year, since the administration has threatened to expand its prohibitions on travel. The uncertainty on this point has created waves of anxiety, from the classroom to the board room. Will new cohorts of international students apply for admission for 2017-2018 — or will they go to Canada, which recently announced that holders of Canadian degrees would be put on a path to citizenship? At The New School, some graduate students from affected and as-yet unaffected countries had to take qualifying exams the day after chaos broke out at airports nationwide, not knowing if they will be able to complete their degrees here or, if they choose to stay, they will be separated from their families indefinitely. Many institutions that rely on international students will feel this executive order in our budgets, and many of us are already financially fragile.

To repeat: the threat to academic freedom is political, not intellectual. The boycott of international conferences held in the United States has not been endorsed by the AHA or, to the best of my knowledge, by any professional association (although, given what we have seen in the past several years, organizations like the American Studies Association may choose to go that route.) Rather, it has been conceived and promoted by non-US scholars, principally in Europe, Canada, and South Africa, in solidarity with colleagues and students whose participation in the international community of knowledge that we all cherish has been brought to an abrupt, indefinite, arbitrary and possibly illegal halt by the Trump administration. Whether we as individual historians agree with boycotts or not, whether we agree with the executive order or not (I am vigorously opposed to it, which you may have guessed), hardly matters. The point is that the world is putting the US on notice that it will not tolerate policies of our government that they view as discriminatory and destructive to global human rights.

That is a fact we must face.

But the knee jerk responses I have seen from some history colleagues — that the travel ban is not a big deal, that it is an effective and rational response to the threat of violence, and that Obama and Trump are equally culpable for what happened Friday — are utterly unproven and disappointingly ahistorical. In the short run, the Trump policy against legal immigrants and residents appears to have caused more pain, confusion and damage than Obama administration policies, although many who have been detained at the Mexican border might dispute that. But vetted, legally documented travelers would not have been on the move at all last week, many to universities, without the policies and procedures that the previous administration promoted to encourage international collaboration, as well as the migration of those who promise to contribute to the renewal of American society, culture and knowledge production.

How do we understand this moment as historians? We understand it by mustering and examining the evidence at hand. The historian has been defined by empiricism; to date we have little evidence that the international scholars who devised the boycott seek to do us harm, but much evidence that, at the very least, the Trump administration cares little for the norms of our community. Donald Trump has been explicit that he seeks only to promote the interests of the United States, and that he views the severing of international relationships as an acceptable tactic to forward this goal. That, in a nutshell, is the primary threat to academic freedom. What we can now call the Trump Doctrine is, inevitably, a stance against the free international exchange of ideas; an international boycott of conferences held in the United States only clarifies that fact, it does not create it. Furthermore, the boycott underlines an important historical lesson: nationalist policies not only do damage to their own people, but they also unleash opposing forces that punish in equally crude ways.

We also have evidence, in Mr. Trump’s continual references to his responsibility to those who voted for him and disdain for those who did not, that in his mind, opposing points of view have no status for him or his advisors. This stance is out of step, not just with the spirit of scholarship, but with the American democratic tradition. This is an issue that all scholars — whether they are enthusiastic about Mr. Trump’s leadership or not — must take more seriously than an international academic boycott. Healthy democracies don’t function by force and acquiescence, by promoting fallacies and unproven theories over facts, and neither does the historical profession. Unlike the Trump administration, good historians endeavor to look at questions from all perspectives. In that light, rather than claiming harm from this boycott, it might be worth considering what international colleagues promoting it are saying to us, and what we might learn from it, as we move forward to protect freedom of thought and speech within the branch of our profession residing in the United States.

People who are being boycotted tend not to approve of being publicly shamed, so I understand the anger among some of our colleagues even though I do not feel it myself. But I don’t understand the sense of injustice, or the implication that somehow the AHA has taken a stance against academic freedom, when in fact the exact opposite is the case. This executive order will impact all of us as scholars, as historians, as citizens, and as researchers: really, a boycott is the least of our worries. Let’s focus on the damaging policies that prompted a boycott in the first place.

This post was originally published in Public Seminar.

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