Pitzer President Melvin Oliver vetoes suspension of Haifa study abroad program

Pitzer President Melvin Oliver before Thursday’s College Council meeting, at which the council voted to suspend Pitzer’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa in Israel. (Talia Bernstein • The Student Life)

Less than three hours after the Pitzer College Council voted 67-28 to suspend Pitzer’s study abroad program to the University of Haifa in Israel, Pitzer President Melvin Oliver vetoed the decision and said he will not implement the suspension.

“I fully respect the actions of the College Council, thus I do not make this decision lightly,” Oliver said in a press release. College Council votes are officially non-binding recommendations to the president.

Oliver said the veto was based on the political nature of the suspension.

“The recommendation would effectively cause the college — not some of its constituent members, but the college itself — to take an unavoidably political position on one of the most controversial issues of our time,” Oliver said. “It is rarely, if ever, the role of the college to be taking such positions.”

To take such a political position, the college must have consensus across “internal and external constituencies in support of the position,” Oliver said. “This recommendation fails that test” and would “unnecessarily alienate a large cross section of the college’s constituencies,” he said.

Oliver said the motion constitutes an academic boycott of Israel and is by nature prejudiced by “singling out Israel.”

He said he’s had several months to consider the decision and talked with Faculty Executive Committee members, individual faculty, trustees, students and parents.

Professor Dan Segal, one of the most strident supporters of the suspension, blasted Oliver in a message to the Pitzer community.

Oliver’s veto “shows that his deeply personal commitment to protect Israeli apartheid is more important to him than the best interests of the college,” Segal said.

“This shows a failure to appreciate that Palestinians are our fellow human beings, and a contempt for the college’s democratic process,” he continued. “Because of the divisiveness of the president’s actions and his betrayal of the college’s core values, the president is doing grievous damage to the college I love and have served for 32 years.”

The Faculty Executive Committee will meet Friday to discuss Oliver’s decision, FEC chair Claudia Strauss said.

5C Jewish chaplain Rabbi Daniel Shapiro praised Oliver’s decision.

“I thank him for standing up for academic freedom,” he said via message.

Zachary Freiman PO ’20, a board member for Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance praised Oliver’s decision.

“President Oliver, like any executive, has the right to not accept this biased, unjust and ill-conceived recommendation targeting the only Jewish state,” he said via message. “The Claremont Progressive Israel Alliance commends his bravery and commitment to academic freedom.”

A Pitzer Student Senate executive board statement posted on its Facebook page condemned Oliver’s decision.

“It’s antithetical to shared governance and is a fundamental threat to student, faculty and staff voice,” the statement said. “We have democratic processes in place to ensure that topics are given their fair consideration. And today, it was not respected … the fight is not over.”

Lea Kayali PO ’19, chair of Students for Justice in Palestine, which backed the Haifa program’s suspension, criticized the decision.

“There is a clear pattern here, which is that the higher ups in Pitzer’s decision-making processes are systematically not supporting Palestinian students and democratic motions that support those students,” Kayali said.

SJP is calling on Oliver to reverse his decision and is circulating a petition advocating for him to do so.

Shay Lari-Hosain PZ ’22, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, which was a primary backer of the campaign to end the program, also criticized the decision.

“[The decision] is a slap in the face to students who have been working so hard on this to work toward Palestinian rights, and it’s a slap in the face to the Pitzer student body who overwhelmingly supports this and the faculty who overwhelmingly supports this,” Lari-Hosain said.

Kamyab Mashian PZ ’19, a senate vice president, said via message that while it’s within Oliver’s power to veto the recommendation, his decision is “incredibly insulting to the months of dialogue, outreach and debate that went into College Council’s approval of the amended motion.

“It’s insulting to the work done by faculty and students to find a compromise, and it’s insulting to the clear mandate from every vote from today that we broaden the conversation and include as much of the community as possible,” Mashian said.

Elinor Aspegren and Patrick Liu contributed reporting.

This article was updated March 15 at 12:17 a.m. to include additional comments.

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