Portland State University president Wim Wiewel recently publicly denounced a resolution introduced to the student senate of the Associated Students of PSU calling on the university to divest any holdings in Caterpillar, G4S, Hewlett-Packard, and Motorola Solutions. Here is a link to Wiewel’s comments https://voxprez.com/ and here is a response from Occupation-Free Portland.
Imagine if Wiewel’s views of divisiveness and discomfort became the gold standard for academia: True scientific inquiry would come to a halt, because it would be uncomfortable for an academic to have their papers and research challenged and critiqued by colleagues; teachers would have to stop correcting student’s work because students might feel unsafe; civil rights and social justice movements would halt because they are divisive and would make people uncomfortable. Universities would still be segregated. South Africa would still be under apartheid. Free expression of political speech itself would end on college campuses.
Wiewel contends that the resolution introduced dictates opinion. This is false and an affront to the democratic process of student government. The resolution was introduced to the Senate and after due deliberation was voted on. It has passed the first reading by a democratic vote of the Senate and will continue on to a second reading for further deliberation and a final vote. Mr. Wiewel, this is called democracy. What you are attempting to teach students is, yes, you can have your democracy except when it comes to discussing human rights violations against Palestinians. This certainly fits the bill for teaching students the current zeitgeist of our political elites but is not about teaching real democracy.
There are a lot of divisive issues on campus: many people feel that the university leadership created divisiveness and made students feel physically unsafe by their decision to arm campus security. Students with mental health issues, which often come to a crisis during their university years, have real reason to fear that armed police will treat them differently than un-armed police. So the question is not are there divisive issues, but which issue is “too divisive” and for Wim Wiewel, it is too divisive if Israel’s policies are questioned. He is an exceptionalist when it comes to Israel, pure and simple.
By Wiewel’s standard of divisiveness, he would have been vigorously opposed to the desegregation of schools in the South. After all, a majority of white students did not want black students to attend school at all, and how quintessentially divisive was that? Of course, Wiewel would no doubt deny he would have been opposed to desegregation.
Wiewel claims the students are ill-informed. In fact, there are copious amounts of documentation from respected human rights organizations supporting their claims. Wiewel himself appears wildly uninformed about the resolution, and this is clear because his talking points are virtually identical to the talking points of those opposed to divestment: he has taken his points from one side without any real consideration. He ignores the fact that the Portland Human Rights Commission also considered these companies and voted to support adding them to the City of Portland’s Do-Not-Buy list. He ignores the fact that the Portland Socially Responsible Investment Committee looked at one company, Caterpillar, and also decided to add it to the City’s Do-Not-Buy list. This was all after thorough deliberation and debate. Finally, the opposition to divestment never offered any evidence and did not even attempt to refute the fact that these corporations do indeed violate the human rights of Palestinians. The United Nations Guiding Principles on the Human Rights Responsibilities of Businesses makes clear that corporations are responsible for how their products are used by their business partners.
He also claims that those opposed to the resolution feel uncomfortable, but he ignores the real discomfort faced by Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students and their supporters on campus. A number of extremely problematic statements were made against Palestinians and others to their face by the opposition at the student senate hearing, including the statement that Palestinians hate Jews more than they love their own children. One opponent held up a sign “Kapo” while a Jewish woman was speaking for divestment. A “Kapo” was a Jewish collaborator working for the Nazis in the concentration camps. How divisive is that, Mr. Wiewel? How comfortable do you think she felt?
According to Mr. Wiewel, any activism should not target specific nations or companies. He complains that, in particular, Israel is being singled out. But any human rights activism, if it is to be more than useless platitudes, deals with specifics: specific victims and specific perpetrators. The Oregon legislature passed a bill that targeted Sudan by ordering divestment from any companies doing business with Sudan because of serious human rights violations in Darfur. This is exactly in the spirit of this current resolution. Is Mr. Wiewel suggesting that it was inappropriate for State of Oregon to target Sudan? This resolution simply attempts hold Israel to the same standards as other countries.
The resolution put forward targets global corporations for well-documented human rights violations. It says nothing about students on campus nor does it criticize any ethnic or religious group. It criticizes the policies of a foreign government and the behavior of multi-national corporations, surely the proper domain of vigorous, open debate in a free society. Mr. Wiewel’s claim that the resolution seeks to marginalize students is simply wrong; it is not about students on campus.
Even worse, he appears to claim that the resolution and the student activism on campus in support of divestment are anti-Semitic. This is a serious charge to make and chilling of free speech, but he offers absolutely no evidence. It is a scurrilous charge and extremely irresponsible for a university president to make so casually against students.
Mr. Wiewel also claims that Portland State University is not invested in any of these companies, but PSU is invested in the State of Oregon’s Public University Fund that does invest in Caterpillar and HP, so this assertion is also incorrect.
The miserable situation Palestinians face today, the settlement expansion, cruel siege of Gaza, military occupation, and home demolitions have continued unabated precisely because the political elites in the U.S. treat Israel with such exceptionalism and protection from scrutiny. Academic freedom and free political expression are under attack by people like Wim Wiewel because of this continued exceptionalism.