Decision not to renew Joel Kovel’s appointment at Bard College

Leon Botstein

President, Bard College

PO Box 5000

Annandale-on-Hudson NY 12504


Dear Dr. Botstein,

We are writing to express our concern about the circumstances surrounding your administration’s decision not to renew Joel Kovel’s appointment as Distinguished Professor of Social Studies at Bard College. 

In her letter to Professor Kovel dated February 5, 2009, Dean of the College Michèle Dominy explained this decision in terms of “the imperative to distribute our resources in areas of critical academic growth and program enhancement,” while you yourself have cited “fiscal constraints.” We certainly understand the difficult choices that colleges and universities currently face. But we also take note of allegations that the decision not to renew Professor Kovel’s contract may have been the result, at least in part, of his publicly expressed views on Zionism and the State of Israel. If in fact Professor Kovel’s views played any part in this decision, his non-renewal would constitute a serious violation of the principles of academic freedom and a threat to all teachers and students who exercise their right to teach about, and speak out publicly on, controversial issues, including Zionism and Israel.

MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, the Association publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has more than 3000 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.

As you know, Joel Kovel is a much published scholar who has taught at Bard for more than twenty years. In recent years, however, he has been subjected to considerable criticism for his outspoken views on Zionism and Israel, and he has also been the target of a campaign to stop the University of Michigan from distributing one of his books in the United States, on essentially political grounds. Given these circumstances, and Professor Kovel’s long and by all accounts successful record of teaching at Bard, we urge you to state unequivocally that Professor Kovel’s political views played no part whatsoever in the decision not to renew his contract. We also urge that he be accorded a full and fair hearing, in conformity with Bard’s procedures and the standards commonly accepted in academic life, at which he can contest what he perceives to have been an unjust decision and a violation of his academic freedom. Finally, we urge you, in keeping with Bard’s justly deserved reputation as a bastion of liberal arts education and free critical inquiry, to issue a public statement forcefully affirming Bard’s commitment to academic freedom, especially when controversial issues are involved. 


Virginia H. Aksan

MESA President & Professor, McMaster University


Joel Kovel


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