University leaders have breached the trust of staff and students over Israeli Ambassador visit
Tuesday 3 March 2015
THAT Edward Snowden was elected rector of the University of Glasgow demonstrates the importance of freedom of expression to its students.
But academic freedom carries with it responsibilities. Today the University of Glasgow greeted the Israeli Ambassador "as a welcome guest to the School of Law". It did so under an unprecedented cloak of secrecy.
We are saddened by the invitation and believe it should not have been extended. The state of Israel has effectively silenced legitimate expression by Palestinians through limiting their movement, appropriating their land and violating their rights, in ways that are well documented. Gaza is in ruins, Israeli universities are being built on land which has been settled illegally. Israeli Embassy security are today on campus. This puts staff involved in projects in the Occupied Palestinian Territories at risk.
The setting aside of the normal decision-making procedures about events has encouraged hurried protest. The visit risks damaging existing relationships which staff across the university have built carefully with groups in Palestine and elsewhere internationally, who will be distressed to hear about this visit.
In this we have a concern for the postgraduate students in the School of Law. We understand that as of Friday lunchtime, students did not know who would be speaking. It is seriously concerning that students who may wish to follow the National Union of Students position on the Call for an Academic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions are being denied the information which would make it possible for them to do so.
It is a matter of grave concern to us that students who were invited to attend the event at the University of Glasgow were not given the necessary time to prepare for the seminar, and to consider, analyse and discuss the implications. Instead we believe the withholding of information will seriously disadvantage students and place them in a position of vulnerability.
We believe this constitutes a failure in our duties as academics. It is our view that part of the responsibility for the conduct of academic freedom is that time and preparation need to be accorded for reading, preparation and debate, most especially in difficult matters where there is considerable, known disagreement. When this is withheld there is a tendency for chaotically organised positions to emerge and for students to be left at a serious disadvantage. Whilst the School of Law has urged discretion it is not the stated position of the guest. It is a stated position of the Israeli Ambassador, when faced with protest, to engage in even more "active reaching out and making our case".
Either senior management in the university and decision-makers in the School of Law have stumbled into a deadly conflict and diplomatic game, and have been played, or they have taken the side of a powerful aggressor. The decision-makers and university leaders have breached the trust of their staff and students with respect to the responsibilities that rest with them as stewards of something as precious as the right to academic freedom.
Alison Phipps, Professor of Languages and Intercultural Studies; Sarah Craig, Senior Lecturer, School of Law;
Rebecca Kay, Professor of Russian Gender Studies, School of Political and Social Sciences; Vassiliki Kolocotroni, Senior Lecturer, School of Critical Studies; Julie McAdam, lecturer, School of Education; Willy Maley, Professor of English Literature, School of Critical Studies; Maud Anne Bracke, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History, School of Humanities, University of Glasgow; Jane Goldman, Reader in English Literature, School of Critical Studies; Kate O'Donnell, Professor of Primary Care Research and Development, Institute of Health and Wellbeing; Andrew Smith, Reader in Sociology, School of Social and Political Sciences, Keith Hammond, School of Law; Bridget Fowler, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, School of Social and Political Sciences; Francesca Stella, Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Research Fellow, School of Social and Political Sciences; Roona Simpson, Lecturer in Social Science Research Methods, School of Social and Political Sciences; Andrea Williamson, Clinical Senior University Teacher, General Practice and Primary Care, School of Medicine, University of Glasgow; Teresa Piacentini, Lecturer in Sociology, School of Social and Political Sciences; Simon Murray, Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies, School of Culture and Creative Arts; Maria-Daniella Dick, Lecturer in English Literature, School of Critical Studies; Katja Frimberger, Research Associate, School of Education; Evelyn Arizpe, Senior Lecturer in Education, School of Education; Graham Watt, Professor of General Practice; Neil Davidson, Lecturer in Sociology, School of Social and Political Sciences, all University of Glasgow,
Tuesday 3 March 2015
Seen from one direction, the visit of Daniel Taub, the Israeli ambassador to the UK, to the University of Glasgow looked like an exercise of free speech by a controversial figure in a democratic country.
From another, with a helicopter hovering overhead, a police presence on campus, and students protesting outside, it looked like a controversial decision being imposed by force. But it was absolutely right that Mr Taub's visit went ahead.
A group of academics at the university take the opposite position. In a letter to The Herald, more than 20 academics in education, law, sociology and other disciplines say they are saddened by the visit and that the invitation should not have been extended to Mr Taub. Israel, they say, has effectively silenced legitimate expression by Palestinians through limiting their movement, appropriating their land and violating their rights and, by inviting Mr Taub to speak, Glasgow University has taken the side of a powerful aggressor.
The letter writers also have some more practical objections to the way Mr Taub's visit was handled. They say it was organised secretly and the identity of the speaker was not announced in the days leading up to the visit, which meant students did not have all the information they needed to make a decision about whether to attend or indeed to take part in protests against the visit.
The practical arguments of the academics are reasonable. There are obviously security implications in the visit of an Israeli ambassador to a British university campus, but the university authorities should be open and honest about who is coming and why in order that student or campaign groups have the time to exercise their right to peacefully protest against the visit.
The arguments around the principle of Mr Taub's visit are much trickier. The protesters assert that Israeli institutions and their staff should be boycotted on the grounds that Israel is an occupying power which refuses to adhere to international law and they absolutely have the right to make that argument and target their dissent directly and loudly at Mr Taub and others. But Glasgow University must also have the right to invite Mr Taub to speak on the grounds that their students should have access to a range of perspectives on important issues. Both positions should co-exist and neither must be allowed to dominate.
If the voices calling for boycott prevail, the results can be seen in the regrettable case of Israel's Incubator Theatre which had to pull out of its planned run of performances at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year in the face of protests. The theatre group was a perfectly legitimate target for dissent and protest, but they should have been able to go ahead in the face of it.
The same principle must apply on a university campus. If a university invites a leading representative of a state that is pursuing controversial policies such as those in Gaza, it should expect, and facilitate, loud and angry protest. But the protesters should not expect to be able to close down the alternative position. Dialogue and protest are better than no dialogue at all.