Kramer bill puts reins on college memberships -- Gazette.Net


An academic boycott of Israel by a U.S. academic association has Maryland lawmakers questioning how the state’s colleges and universities spend public funds.

The American Studies Association — a national organization devoted to the interdisciplinary study of American culture and history — voted in December to boycott Israeli academic institutions.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County remained a dues-paying member of the association even after the vote to boycott, so Del. Benjamin F. Kramer has introduced a bill that would restrict the ability of universities and its faculty to spend public money on participation in organizations that engage in such boycotts.

Kramer’s bill has been cross-filed in the Senate by Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Dist. 43) of Baltimore, chairwoman of the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee.

“In this case we have a single institution in Maryland that is using public dollars to participate as a member in this organization,” said Kramer (D-Dist. 19) of Derwood. “I don’t think we should be using public dollars to fund membership or participation in the activities of this organization because it completely undermines state policy and its relationship, through a Declaration of Cooperation, with Israel.”

The declaration means Maryland and Israel will work to cooperate in trade, agriculture, academics and economic development, Kramer said.

Broadly, Kramer’s bill addresses the appropriate use of public funds by state colleges and universities.

Specifically, it restricts higher education institutions from spending public funds to support — through membership fees or travel expenses — academic boycotts of countries that have ratified Declarations of Cooperation with the state.

Colleges or universities that violate the legislation face losing 3 percent of their funding the following fiscal year as a penalty. Nothing in the proposed legislation prevents faculty members from paying their own way.

Lisa Akchin, associate vice president and assistant to the president at UMBC, said the school’s membership in the American Studies Association was a decision of the university’s American studies department.

The membership consists of a $170 annual fee paid by the department, she said.

University President Freeman Hrabowski and Provost Philip Rous have openly opposed the academic boycott.

“We oppose academic boycotts because they are inconsistent with the tenets of academic freedom and open scholarly inquiry,” they said in a Dec. 23 statement.

Through its boycott, the association is refusing to collaborate officially with Israeli academic institutions or with scholars serving as institutional representatives or ambassadors, or on behalf of the Israeli government “until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law,” according to a statement by the association’s National Council.

Just as UMBC opposed the boycott, it vigorously opposes Kramer’s bill, Akchin said.

“In every aspect of these issues, freedom has been our guiding principle,” Akchin said. “The freedom to have open connections between the U.S. scholarly community and Israeli institutions, the freedom of our own faculty in the American studies department to make their own determination about their research and scholarly association, and the freedom of our faculty to continue their scholarly work without interference by the General Assembly.”

Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a cosponsor of the bill, said lawmakers have a responsibility to address a questionable issue when it comes to their attention.

“To put in a bill, bring the conversation up and have the discussion, to bring awareness to the issues is significant,” said Eckardt (R-Dist. 37B) of Cambridge. “For the body to make a conscious decision on it, weigh the pros and cons, is important debate and discussion to have.”

This is not the first time the legislature has questioned how Maryland universities spend public funds. In 2010, Perdue chicken farmers Alan and Kristen Hudson of Worcester County were sued by the Waterkeeper Alliance of New York over Chesapeake Bay pollution. The University of Maryland Environmental Law Clinic represented the plaintiffs.

Gov. Martin J. O’Malley (D) wrote to law school Dean Phoebe Haddon in 2011 to complain about the injustice of the law clinic pursuing “costly litigation of questionable merit” against the Hudsons. Lawmakers later put money in the budget to start an agriculture law clinic or advisory group to help farmers in the state.

But opponents of Kramer’s and Conway’s bills say this latest legislation would impose political restrictions on the use of public funds by universities and colleges and it would violate academic and personal freedom.

“…[W]e believe that it constitutes a very serious threat to academic freedom and to the autonomy and integrity of the state’s publicly-supported colleges and universities,” Nathan Brown, president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, said in a letter to Conway. “Faculty in Maryland should not be subjected to a political litmus test concerning their involvement in academic organizations ...”

In an action alert, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said the bill prohibits peaceful dissent by withholding state funding and urged Muslims and other concerned citizens to push lawmakers to drop the legislation. A representative of the group in Maryland could not be reached for comment.

Kramer said the Maryland Attorney General’s office was involved in drafting the bill and that he has a letter of advice from it “indicating the legislation is indeed right in line with everything that the state has the authority to be doing without jeopardizing anyone’s constitutional rights or freedom of speech or association.”

Kramer’s bill has 51 co-sponsors.

A hearing on the Senate version of the bill is scheduled for March 5. A hearing on the House version hadn’t been set as of Tuesday.