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Posted in: Culture Wars & Censorship, Free Speech

Published on May 03, 2017 by Robert M. Costrell

Written for Campus Watch

Letter from Prof. Robert M. Costrell to the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor of the U. of Arkansas Regarding the Disinvitation of Prof. Phyllis Chesler


The following letter was sent by Robert M. Costrell, Prof. of Education Reform and Economics and Endowed Chair in Education Accountability in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, to the two top officers of the University: Joseph E. "Joe" Steinmetz, Chancellor, and James Scott "Jim" Coleman, Executive Vice Chancellor, on May 3, 2017.

It addresses his concerns over the cancellation of a lecture by Phyllis Chesler, professor emerita at the City University of New York and a prominent feminist scholar, on "Worldwide Trends in Honor Killings" at a conference on "Violence in the Name of Honor: Confronting and Responding to Honor Killings and Forced Marriage in the West," which was held on April 13-14. Campus Watch thanks Prof. Costrell for his kind permission to reproduce his letter.

Dear Joe & Jim,

Last month, I was pleased to see that noted feminist scholar Prof. Phyllis Chesler was scheduled to appear (by Skype) at an important University conference. I was planning to attend. I then saw reports that she had been disinvited and, indeed, when I checked, her name had been expunged from the program. This was unsettling, to say the least, and I assumed the University would publicly explain the circumstances and rationale for this rather chilling action. Those of us who cherish the academic enterprise have been disturbed by "disinvites" at other universities, but for the University of Arkansas, this was, to my knowledge, unprecedented. So, as the weeks went by, I was disappointed that no explanation was forthcoming, at least none that I saw.

Not surprisingly, the vacuum left by the University's silence has now been filled by an array of online reports including a first-person account by Prof. Chesler, and other accounts which reproduce or summarize e-mails from University parties to these events. Prof. Chesler's account has now reached the international press. She provides these alleged details:

"According to Professor [Lisa] Avalos [Law School, who invited Chesler], the current Director of the King Fahd Center, geologist Tom Paradise was told by an administrator that funding to the Center would be cut and/or the entire conference cancelled if I were not dis-invited.

"The task fell to Professor Avalos who was outraged, embarrassed, and in some anguish. She described "intense pressure;" Professor Paradise may have become terrified. His emails sound terrified. Avalos thought this dis-invitation was a "disgrace," that my "work was well reasoned and carefully measured," that I did not "deserve this." Avalos also thought that this was "Arkansas-specific." I spent time comforting her and explaining that this problem was far bigger than Arkansas.

[...]

"The director of the King Fahd Center, Tom Paradise, called me to offer his personal apology for the dis-invitation and to make sure that I understood that he had been given no choice."

You are probably familiar with this and other accounts circulating online. They refer to emails with veiled threats and advice not to report violent action (broken window at a personal residence) to the police. If these allegations are true, they depict an environment of intimidation and cover-up that is totally alien to the academic enterprise.

At the very least, it seems that Prof. Avalos and Prof. Paradise were placed in untenable situations – especially threatening for an untenured professor. But the issues are of wider concern, to the whole faculty, as well as the students and general public (as I recall, the conference was open to the public). As a faculty member, I and my colleagues need to know the rules: under what circumstances might we be pressured or forced to disinvite a guest speaker?

I would hope that the University will undertake a full investigation of all the circumstances surrounding this event, and make the detailed findings public, along with its policies going forward on "disinvites." I would think that such an investigation would include all the pertinent emails, many of which have been cited in the public reports, as well as interviews with all the principals involved, including Prof. Chesler, and those involved at the University. According to reports, Professors Gordon, Kahf, and Swedenburg of the King Fahd Center initiated the objections to Professor Chesler's invitation. The University's investigation should clarify for the public whether the administration responded appropriately or not to the objections raised by Professors Gordon, Kahf, and Swedenburg.

A number of universities have taken a hit to their reputations in the wake of such disinvites. Our University's reputation is still intact, but the administration's silence in the face of such reports puts our reputation at risk, as these reports circulate more widely by the day. It leaves the impression that we are sweeping this under the rug.

If these reports are inaccurate, it seems to me incumbent upon the University to demonstrate conclusively that is the case, given the first-person accounts and emails that have already entered the public domain. If these reports are even partly accurate, I would hope the University will take appropriate action to ensure that no such intimidation ever occurs again. The academic enterprise is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, as best as we can discern it, and I am sure you will agree that the University community – and the general public -- needs to know the truth surrounding these disturbing events.

Sincerely,

Bob

Robert M. Costrell
Professor of Education Reform and Economics
Endowed Chair in Education Accountability
Department of Education Reform
College of Education and Health Professions
201 Graduate Education Building
University of Arkansas
Fayetteville, AR 72701


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