Questions about the Alice Walker case

by Barbara Harvey – 18 August 2013, Mondoweiss

Barbara Harvey wrote the following summary of the University of Michigan controversy to the Jewish Voice for Peace-Detroit Coordinating Committee and allowed us to publish it. –Ed.

In a nutshell, the globally worshipped Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker was invited — and then “disinvited” to be the featured speaker at the U of M Center for the Education of Women celebration of its 50th anniversary, reportedly because donors to the event do not like her views on the Israeli Occupation. The current news is that Prof. Gloria Thomas, the Center director, has privately assured recently retired literature professor Alan Wald that she is now “working on re-extending” “an” invitation. Apparently, there was effective media coverage by Ali Abunimah in Electronic Intifada and Phil Weiss at Mondoweiss, and effective behind-the-scenes activity by the powerful writer and UCLA professor, Robin Kelly, as well as by widely loved recently retired U of M professor and author, Alan Wald. Alan describes Prof. Gloria Thomas [director of the women’s education center] as a lovely person with integrity. This is not about her, personally, but about the process.

The incident is not resolved yet. The Center director denies that donor pressure influenced her decision and claims that the agent “misunderstood” what happened. And is the “re-extended” invitation an invitation to speak at the Center’s anniversary event? The Provost’s statement —link – suggests that it is not an invitation to the Center’s anniversary celebration.

This incident may reveal whether financial donors to the U of M are allowed to veto speakers at official University events or otherwise influence students’ exposure to various perspectives — a question that goes to the academic integrity of the institution. The Provost denies that the University interferes with free speech on campus, and it does seem to be the case that Alice Walker will be invited to speak on campus at some future time, giving students a chance to hear her views, albeit apparently not the audience that will be attending the Center’s anniversary. We don’t know with certainty whether one or more donors actually sought to influence the content of an official University event by threatening to revoke a financial gift unless the invited speaker (Walker) was “disinvited,” and we don’t know whether the donor(s) actually succeeded in wielding the power of the purse by forcing cancellation of the chosen speaker — one of the most esteemed writers in the world — based on her support for a view widely shared outside the U.S. and Israel about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, though it certainly looks like it from the evidence that has already come to light.

The sort of behind-the-scenes financial pressure that we fear may have been at work here has been responsible for decades of self-censorship in the U.S. media on this issue, with the result that Americans are the only people in the world who lack balanced and undistorted mainstream media coverage of one of the most important human rights and justice issues of the modern era. We can’t tolerate the same dynamic on U.S. campuses; it would be a serious assault upon campus free speech and academic freedom. And if this was an attempt at blacklisting, we must speak out strongly against such a modern-day resurrection of McCarthyism.

How often will it happen that such actions see the light of day? The answer is: Not often. Of this much, we are sure.

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