Academic freedom needs to come first

By Sara Hanson

Universities are meant to provide a safe place for students and academics to participate in the creation of new ideas without any restraints.

This was the view expressed by a number of Canadian universities in response to the British Union of Colleges and Universities’ recent discussions surrounding an academic boycott of Israeli universities. The proposed boycott stemmed from the ongoing conflict between Israeli and Palestinian governments.

University of Toronto president David Naylor sent a letter to the UCU general secretary Sally Hunt Wed., Jun. 20, which expressed the U of T’s opposition to academic boycotts of any kind, regardless of the political climate.

“Academic boycotts are antithetical to the university’s most fundamental values,” wrote Naylor. “We believe that universities can best protect and enhance human rights by steadfastly guarding and promoting academic freedom and freedom of expression.”

A number of other Canadian universities have also expressed their opposition to the UCU’s proposed boycott against Israeli academics. University of Calgary president Dr. Harvey Weingarten issued a public statement Wed., Jun. 27 which expressed concerns similar to Naylor’s.

“The role of universities is to promote, permit and enable the free exchange of ideas, debate and civil discourse,” he stated. “If universities do not support these values, which societal institutions will? The proposed boycott runs counter to these values and must be opposed and condemned.”

While the UCU has received criticisms from institutions around the world, the boycott has not yet been implemented. In an e-mail to The Gauntlet, UCU press officer Dan Ashley explained the formal discussions surrounding a possible boycott still need to take place.

“There has never been a boycott,” said Ashley. “There has, however, been a fair amount of inaccurate reporting and confusion. UCU delegates voted for discussions around a boycott to take place locally [and] around the country. These debates will probably happen in the autumn term.”

Although further discussions could make the boycott possible, U of C Canadian studies assistant professor Dr. Paul Stortz explained academic boycotts are very rare due to the complex nature of a university. In order for a boycott to occur, the variety of communities which make up a university must take the same political standpoint, a factor which Stortz noted would be very difficult.

“Universities, idealistically, are supposed to be politically free,” said Stortz. “The university is all about freedom of thought and activity. It is designed to create ideas, research them, and deconstruct them for critical discussion, and therefore, must take a fairly non-political posture to try and understand ideas intellectually.”

While Stortz could not name a nation-wide boycott ever occurring within Canada’s academic history, he explained that the Second World War was a unique time, as all Canadian universities were aligned with the same goal in mind: winning the war. Stortz also noted that during the war, it was not uncommon for professors to change to war-focused research topics.

Leave a comment