Freedom is not an academic discussion

The idea that British academics should boycott Israeli universities and their staff is a slap in the face to academic freedom and solidarity.

Dennis Hayes

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Topics Free Speech

Britain’s main union for academics and lecturers, the University and College Union (UCU), once again discussed the issue of relations with Israeli academics at its annual congress in Manchester last week. But while such discussions make little difference in the Middle East, they are seriously undermining academic freedom at home.

The latest stage in the boycott debate occurred last Wednesday when, after a truncated debate, the congress passed yet another motion about an academic boycott of Israeli universities that asked members to consider the ‘moral and political implications of educational links with Israeli institutions’.

The wheeze in this motion is that it did not actually use the word ‘boycott’. When the education minister, Bill Rammell, addressed the congress on Thursday and strongly criticised the UCU resolution, one delegate shouted at him: ‘The motion does not mention the word “boycott!”‘ This only goes to show how unsubtle academic activists can be: don’t mention the ‘B’ word and no one will notice that what is proposed is, in fact, an academic boycott…

The UCU was formed in 2006 from the merger of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (Natfhe) and the Association of University Teachers (AUT). This year’s congress was my last one as a national union officer, having spent the past three years as part of the leadership first of Natfhe, then the UCU. This period should have been dominated by the launch of a powerful new trade union. Instead, the new organisation has been tied up in knots about an academic boycott of Israeli higher education institutions.

Attempts to introduce a boycott have been going on for the past few years. The motion passed last week is a pale shadow of the previous year’s motion, which asked UCU to circulate a Palestinian call for a ‘comprehensive and consistent international boycott of all Israeli academic institutions’.

A previous Natfhe motion had asked members to ‘consider the appropriateness of a boycott of those [Israeli educational institutions and individuals] that do not publicly dissociate themselves from… Israeli apartheid policies’. That motion was itself a half-hearted response to the defeat of the boycotters by the members of the former AUT. The union’s council had decided in April 2005 to boycott two Israeli universities, a decision that was reversed, after many protests, at a special council meeting a month later.

These annual and increasingly feeble motions say something about how isolated and ineffective campaigns for winning popular support for the beleaguered Palestinians now are. It is no surprise that some Palestinians will ask for any show of support and may believe that academic boycotts may raise concerns or bring about some debate in Israel about the occupation of Palestine.

But getting individuals to refuse to give a lecture or attend a conference, to mark a dissertation, to reject a paper for a journal, are pointless feelgood activities and a pathetic shadow of what could be real solidarity or support. The boycotters, and often some of the less impressive opponents of the boycott, have not only harmed the development of any real solidarity movement – they have also seriously damaged the defence of academic freedom in Britain, in three ways.

First, the call for a boycott has allowed university vice-chancellors and government ministers to appear to be more concerned with the defence of academic freedom than a union that represents 117,000 lecturers; second, it has added to the political climate of banning and proscribing any ideas you find offensive or just consider to be false; third, and worst of all, it has taken away the unique status of academic freedom as the defining feature of the academy that must be defended, and made it just one more value in a trade-off of values.

As a result of the boycott discussions, many academics think of academic freedom as just one of many things we believe to be important. If we are concerned about anti-racism, gay rights, the environment, oppression of one kind or another, then the idea of giving up academic freedom in order to proscribe the views of racists, ‘homophobes’, climate change ‘deniers’ and warmongers seems the decent thing to do. It’s not.

The point about academic freedom – and in this, it is the same as freedom of speech – is that it is the foundation of all other values we hold in the university. This is because the assertion of academic freedom means that, in the academy, the only test of truth is individual human reason. Every individual is free to make up his mind about an issue and can challenge anyone who tells him that one view or another is the correct one. In not defending the right of academics and students to make their own minds up about a whole variety of viewpoints, but to hear only the acceptable ones, UCU has an inconsistent and even self-contradictory position on academic freedom.

The idea, promoted by UCU activists, that academic freedom is a privilege for those who have the correct views on an issue is now widespread. To reverse this idea means to defend this freedom for those who hold obnoxious views as well as for those who hold radical and politically correct views. Unfortunately, besides Academics For Academic Freedom (of which I am founder), only a few individuals have been prepared to make this kind of argument.

One UCU activist told me that my position on the boycott ‘takes academic freedom too far’. My view is that there is nothing too far for academic freedom. Academic freedom entails a responsibility to hear all views not because it supports the ‘right’ of anyone to have their views heard, but because it upholds the right of those listening to make up their own minds.

The position of UCU should be that all its members, their colleagues and students and their equivalents throughout the world are capable of reason, and people should not be censured, proscribed, banned or boycotted for their ideas but allowed to submit them to their peers and students for open, critical discussion.

The tragedy of the academic boycott campaign is that it is ultimately a boycott of the academy, of academic freedom, and the right of every individual to decide issues through rational debate.

Dennis Hayes was joint president of UCU in 2006-7 and is the founder of Academics For Academic Freedom.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild said the only thing we should boycott is boycotts. University of East Anglia student Richard Reynolds struck a blow for free speech. Wendy Kaminer told Brendan O’Neill that students have become ‘Young Authoritarians’. Maria Grasso and Lee Jones argued against the Oxford students calling for the censure of an anti-immigration professor. Alex Gourevitch and Alan Miller reported from Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University and said it showed ‘free speech’ as pantomime. Steve Bremner looked at instances of campus censorship. Or read more at spiked issues Free speech and Education.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Free Speech

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