SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 08, 2023

Attack Types: Other

Institution(s):University of Arkansas

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On November 8, 2023, the University of Arkansas (UA) postponed a panel discussion organized by professors Joel Gordon, and Ted Swedenburg – both who are affiliated with the university’s King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies – following complaints from other faculty members.The event was later canceled.

The event postponement and subsequent cancellation occurred about a month after a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid March, has reportedly killed more than 30,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries.

About three weeks after the October 7 attack, UA’s Honors College approached Gordon about organizing a panel on Israel and Palestine. Gordon invited Swedenburg to help him organize the panel, and the two professors engaged in a series of discussions with the Honors College in preparation for the event, which was scheduled to occur on November 8.

In the leadup to the event, several parties pressured the Honors College and UA to cancel the event: a UA colleague in the sciences criticized the event announcement for not characterizing Hamas as a terrorist group; an Educational Reform colleague wrote to UA’s Chancellor and University Provost accusing Gordon and Swedenberg of being intolerant of Zionism; and the alt-right website Conduit News posted a video in which Jay Greene, a Senior Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, criticized Gordon’s and Swedenberg’s views on Israel, Palestine, and Hamas and called on the Arkansas state legislature to shut down the King Fahd Center for Middle East Studies. After the event was initially postponed, Robert Steinbuch, a professor of law at UA, published a series of opinion pieces disparaging Gordon, Swedenburg, and a third professor, Mohja Kahf, also affiliated with the Center for Middle East Studies.

On November 7, Gordon and Swedenberg met with the Honors College to discuss event logistics, including concerns that the event could be derailed. There was no indication at that time that the event would not occur as planned. However, on November 8 at 11am, about six hours before the event was to take place, Gordon and Swedenberg learned that it would not be held.

Scholars at Risk is concerned about a university canceling an academic event apparently because of public pressure from members of the academic community. Higher education officials should protect academic freedom and take all available steps to ensure the exercise of academic freedom, including during on-campus, academic events. The cancellation of events due to public pressure undermines academic freedom and democratic society generally.

Sources:
https://mesana.org/advocacy/committee-on-academic-freedom/2024/03/12/letter-to-the-university-of-arkansas-protesting-its-failure-to-defend-its-faculty
https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/20/us/arkansas-thrall-bds-antisemitism.html?searchResultPosition=1
https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/news/palestine-uncensored-testimonial-8
https://www.juancole.com/2024/01/straight-weaponizing-antisemitism.html