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UNC course on Israel-Palestine conflict sparks controversy over academic freedom

Kylie Broderick, a PhD student at the UNC History Department, poses for a portrait on Oct. 9.

This semester is the first time Kylie Broderick, a third-year doctoral student in the history department, has taught her own course — a course that has proved to be the subject of controversy.

In August, Israeli consular officials in the Southeastern United States allegedly arranged a meeting with the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC to discuss Broderick’s fitness to teach a course titled, “The Conflict Over Israel/Palestine.”

The alleged meeting was the climax of a months-long tension over both the course and Broderick’s social media presence. UNC Media Relations declined to comment several times on these meetings and to provide information about when they occurred and who was in attendance. 

Over the summer, various pro-Israel news organizations published articles expressing concern over Broderick’s ability to teach the material from an unbiased perspective.

The concern stemmed from her tweets about the conflict, which criticized Israel and Zionism and have been labeled by some as anti-Semitic.

Despite the alleged meeting, the course has proceeded this semester as scheduled. But the circumstances surrounding Broderick’s course and Twitter presence have brought conversations about academic freedom, social media and professors’ rights and responsibilities into community conversation.

“The Conflict Over Israel/Palestine” 

Broderick spoke to The Daily Tar Heel in an interview on Oct. 4. The following day, Broderick clarified her comments in written responses. 

In the written responses, she said the purpose of the course is for students to learn the history of the land and identify how, what, and when two mutually exclusive narratives of Israel and Palestine began to emerge. She said the course largely draws from primary source materials that pull from a range of political ideologies, including Zionist perspectives.

“Like any educator, I’m not here to proselytize or propagandize,” Broderick said in the statement. “That’s not the job of a teacher. I present the materials to the class, and they analyze those materials. The conclusion they take from those materials and from the history of this class is their business and I will grade only on the basis of the rigor of their analysis, not if their opinion differs from mine. Obviously.” 

In the face of accusations of anti-Semitism, Broderick said the critique of a nation-state does not equate to bigotry. She said Zionism is a political ideology and that all political ideologies and states must be open to critique.

“On an individual level, detractors are free and welcome to engage me in critique, debate and dialogue. I welcome disagreement,” she said in the statement. “But on an institutional level, this is an issue of my First Amendment rights — it is not illegal to criticize nation-states (nor should it be), and it would be a violation of my First Amendment rights to censor me and punish me at my job for exercising that right.”

Though this is Broderick’s first time teaching her own course on Israel-Palestine, she’s been a teaching assistant for two courses that included units on the conflict. She said the course evaluations she received from students in these courses gave her positive feedback and found her to be a fair instructor. 

One of Broderick’s advisers in the history department, Cemil Aydin, said her course passed through multiple department committees, and there have not been any complaints lodged by students in the course.

The Israeli diplomat who allegedly met with University administrators, Consul General Anat Sultan-Dadon, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Free speech in higher education

Broderick is not the only academic to face backlash due to her public comments on this conflict. 

In 2014, the trustees at the University of Illinois voted to block the appointment of Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-American professor, after students, faculty members and donors contended that Salaita’s Twitter comments on the conflict were anti-Semitic, according to reporting from The New York Times.

The controversy ended with Salaita receiving a settlement, but his offer of a tenured position was rescinded and his academic career came to a halt.

More recently, in the spring, the University of Toronto reversed the process of hiring a director of its International Human Rights Program when a major donor to the school expressed concerns that the hiring might be controversial and harm the school’s reputation. The scholar had a large body of work on the conflict in the Middle East.

While these situations directly pertain to the conflict in the Middle East, they are part of a broader struggle to define and protect academic freedom in an age where many academics use social media to brand themselves and promote their scholarship.

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Tori Ekstrand, associate professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, said the Supreme Court decision in Garcetti v. Ceballos is an important landmark case in determining the degree of freedom that professors have when it comes to free speech.

In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that when public employees make statements that are pursuant to their official duties, they are not speaking as citizens with full First Amendment protections. Rather, they are subject to employer discipline.

Ekstrand said this case set a clear precedent for First Amendment speech as it applies to public employees. However, she said it is less clear how this precedent applies to faculty of public universities.

Ekstrand said circuit courts have varying opinions on whether faculty speech outside of the classroom can be defined as interfering with the school’s mission and purpose.

“It's somewhat of an open question a little bit, and so that's what makes it fuzzy,” Ekstrand said. “But I think the big takeaway is, you know, what are the university policies around speech related to the job and speech that's in service of faculty scholarship and faculty personal citizen rights?”

Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said university policies surrounding employee speech get struck down all the time.

He said that even if a university claims that an employee’s speech outside of the classroom interferes with the university’s mission, these employees still have a high level of protection.

“Just because a faculty member might have views, personal views that others find offensive, that's not enough to prevent them from teaching,” Steinbaugh said. “Because otherwise, pretty much any view would mean that someone somewhere is uncomfortable.”

An ongoing conversation

Ekstrand and Steinbaugh agree that Broderick’s speech was constitutionally sound and permissible, but there are still debates over whether such speech should be commonplace.

Buck Goldstein, a professor in the Shuford Program in Entrepreneurship, said academics in today’s social-media-driven world need to be prepared for the repercussions they’ll face when they put their opinions out for public view.

Goldstein has written two books with former UNC Chancellor Holden Thorp about the modern obligation of public universities. Their book, "Our Higher Calling," rests on a thesis that the public and the university are in a shared partnership, and he said both sides of that partnership have certain responsibilities.

“I don't think there's any doubt that she had the right to tweet what she tweeted,” he said. "But I think the real question is, especially in the world that we live in right now with social media: is it a violation of our understanding, our compact or our partnership with the public?"

He said there isn’t a simple answer. But he said professors get ample leeway to teach what they want — they can use whatever materials, books and arguments they want. 

“As we try to build trust and confidence with the public, I think the argument can be made that your political statements — you have every right to make them — but are you abusing your platform?” Goldstein said.

He said professors have every right to tell a historical story any way they want to. But if they’re trying to build trust with the public, they might consider creating some self-imposed limitations in the way they teach and discuss their scholarship.

“I don't think that keeps you from telling the story, or decolonizing, and making sure that the whole story gets told and in a very powerful way,” he said.