Should universities ever take stances on political issues?

Campuses around the world have been rocked by protests calling for financial divestment from companies linked to Israel. But while boycotts have a long history in academia, some believe that universities themselves would be better advised to keep out of politics entirely. Patrick Jack reports

July 4, 2024
Students from UCL hold up hands painted red during a pro-Palestinian rally, 2024
Source: Mark Kerrison/Getty Images

“Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act.”

This quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, comes up several times during Times Higher Education’s conversations for this article with supporters of academic boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movements.

Calls for universities to withdraw investments in fossil fuel companies have featured prominently on campuses over the past decade and have resulted in many universities doing just that. Universities were also quick to cut ties with Russia following the country’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Most recently, calls by students and faculty at Columbia University for the institution to cut financial ties with Israel in protest against its military action in Gaza have spread to hundreds of campuses worldwide and become a flashpoint in the culture war. Such calls come on the back of a two-decades-long BDS campaign by pro-Palestinian academics and students.

Anglophone universities, though, have been much less inclined to take a stance on the Gaza war – or, indeed, on the 7 October massacre of Israelis by Hamas that sparked it – than they were on the Ukrainian invasion, sparking criticism from both sides of the argument on Israel’s actions.

But how morally pure can academics and institutions realistically be expected to be? Who should decide which causes, if any, institutions should take a stand on? And do boycotts or divestments actually make any meaningful contribution to resolving the issues in question?

There is, of course, a long history of academics, as individuals, protesting against perceived injustices. Examples in recent history include apartheid in South Africa, the Vietnam War and nuclear weapons. And that tradition very much continues. For example, Charlie Gardner, associate senior lecturer at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent, is currently working full-time as a writer and climate activist.

“The normal rules don’t apply in an emergency. Everything changes,” he says. “We need a change in our society of unimaginable scale, and all academics agree about that – the science is very, very clear. And yet we carry on in our day-to-day lives, writing grants and papers.”

Gardner believes that activism should be the fourth plank of the academic’s job description where appropriate because teaching and research are too slow to effect rapid change, and academics’ social standing gives them a “certain power and a certain obligation” to act.

Alf Nilsen, professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria, agrees that BDS tactics become “moral imperatives” in extreme circumstances. And a good example is what he terms Israel’s “genocidal warfare” and “war crimes” in Gaza, where more than 37,000 people have been killed in eight months, including nearly 8,000 children, with thousands more missing, according to the latest figures from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Such tactics are “quite simply one of the most foundational ways we have as academics to put moral pressure on a state that is violating the most fundamental right of all – the right to life”, he says.

But ought institutions themselves use their social cachet to opine or campaign on issues that their students, academics or leaders feel strongly about?

Nick Riemer, senior lecturer in English at the University of Sydney, thinks so. He believes there is a “big gulf” between the ideals that universities claim to espouse and the reality. “Clearly, universities themselves think they should be morally pure because their official marketing goes to town about their role in creating a better world, increasing the chances of peaceful coexistence, increasing tolerance and diversity,” says Riemer, who last year published a book on the pro-Palestinian BDS movement, Boycott Theory and the Struggle for Palestine: Universities, Intellectualism and Liberation. However, he adds, “We know that, actually, universities are deeply complicit in all sorts of things – they are up to their necks in collaborations with fossil fuels [companies], arms industries and the nuclear industry.”

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) has advocated a boycott of Israeli universities (but not of individual academics) since 2004, but while many of today’s protesters echo that call, the focus of the current pro-Palestine protests has been not so much on the B as on the D of BDS (the S, sanctions, is typically seen as a tactic for entire states to deploy, as was done against apartheid-era South Africa).

That emphasis is perhaps because of the relative success that students have had recently in convincing their universities to divest from fossil fuels. According to UK student campaign group People and Planet, 109 UK and two Irish universities – with a combined endowment wealth of more than £17.6 billion – have committed to divesting from fossil fuel companies, as have a similar number of US institutions.

Data from THE’s Impact Rankings show that universities across the world are doing the same. The proportion with a policy on divesting from carbon-intensive energy industries, notably coal and oil, rose from 44 per cent in 2020 to 64 per cent in 2022.

“Divestment does seem to be a lower hanging fruit for the campaigns,” observes Riemer. “There does seem to have been more willingness on the part of universities to divest than there is to do other things. That maybe speaks to the fact that divestment may be seen as a fairly abstract financial decision, whereas the academic boycott is a shunning move.”

A climate change protester holds a sign saying 'Fossil Free Research' in front of the railings of the University's Senate House in Cambridge, England
Martin Pope/Getty Images

Riemer says that divestment can be an effective tactic, especially when it is deployed by US universities, some of which have huge endowments that make them resemble “hedge funds with a side hustle in educating students”.

Others suggest that the direct financial pressure applied by divestment is not its main point. Zak Coleman, former campaign manager at Invest for Change, which campaigns to persuade universities “to invest in the interests of young people, front-line communities and the planet”, says its “real power” is to send a signal to governments and civil society that investor engagement with socially problematic firms is not working and that “legislative intervention” is required to force those firms to mend their ways.

For instance, Coleman, who was previously undergraduate president of the Cambridge Students’ Union, summarises the purpose of divestment from fossil fuel companies as being to rescind their “social licence to operate and removing that sense that they are moving in the right direction on climate”. Universities are uniquely able to make that case because they are “guardians of scientific rigour”, so “their voice on that is really powerful”, Coleman says.

But Bruce Kimball, professor emeritus of educational studies at Ohio State University, believes there is never a justification for divestment. In his view, it is not only ineffective in applying pressure on companies but is also damaging to universities’ own financial positions, including to the value of the donations they receive.

“Would a donor who endowed scholarships for indigenous students in the US want the scholarship income to decrease in order to support an unrelated cause today?” he asks, sceptically.

He also questions why certain causes should take precedence over others and whether any investment is entirely free of ethical taint. “Carried to its logical conclusion, the moral argument implies that higher education should divest or expend all endowments in order to rectify social and political ills in the world,” he argues. 

Indeed, some maintain that universities should not even make statements on issues that do not directly affect them. One objection is that such statements are even less effective than divestment – although, in the case of Gaza, Anat Matar, a senior lecturer in the department of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, says public interventions in support of Palestine can make a difference by drawing global attention to how Israel is “demolishing a nation’s spirit”.

Another objection is that statements are inevitably divisive on campus. According to Randy Boyagoda, the University of Toronto’s new adviser on civil discourse, “statement culture” is a significant reason why the Palestine crisis has been so “incendiary”. Instead, he endorses the Chicago Principles on individual free speech, which marked their 10th anniversary on the eve of Hamas’ attack on Israel, and he has argued that institutions themselves should instead stay neutral – in line with the University of Chicago’s 1967 Kalven report. Harvard University recently adopted a similar position after a faculty-led working group advised it not to “issue official statements about public matters that do not directly affect the university’s core function”.

Kimball’s question about consistency is certainly a difficult one. For instance, Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of SOAS University of London and a former anti-apartheid activist in South Africa, has accused other university leaders of “deep hypocrisy” for speaking out against the Ukraine invasion and for the Black Lives Matter campaign but not against Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Riemer makes a similar argument regarding boycotts and divestments, contrasting the few institutions that have signed up to an academic boycott of Israel with the “stampede” to boycott Russian universities. To him, though, this indicates that the “hesitancy or the obstacles to embracing BDS in the case of Israel” are not the result of universities’ hesitancy about the BDS concept itself but because “it’s about Israel”.

A demonstrator holds a sign depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin with eyes crossed out during a rally in support of Ukraine
Chandan Khanna/Getty Images

On the other hand, Joseph Mintz, an associate professor in education at UCL, regards the entire pro-Palestinian BDS movement as “highly problematic” because of its anti-Zionist roots in the Soviet Union and because it is a tactic that is directed only towards the Jewish state, with no similar boycotts of Sudan or Syria, for instance.

He also notes what he sees as university leaders’ problematic silence over the fact that faculty and students were “celebrating and supporting Hamas’ actions on 7 October”. However, he thinks that it is only in such extreme cases that universities have a “moral imperative” to speak out or act. In general, he is sceptical of the “performative element” of making statements or taking further actions.

“I am not suggesting that universities should weigh in on every atrocity,” he says. “This is not their function, and 99.9 per cent of the time it’s better for them not to” because doing so restricts the space for debate.

J. P. Messina, an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University, is also sceptical of the idea that institutions as complex as modern universities should speak out on a wide variety of issues – even if academics have “a special duty to practise the principles of non-exploitation that they so often advocate with respect to ordinary market actors”.

Messina agrees with Mintz that calls from academics for divestment are primarily about virtue-signalling. “Life in the ivory tower can feel isolated from the real concerns of the world. And I think academics feel that and wish that they had more of an impact,” he says. “Activism in general helps academics feel as if they’re engaged, making a difference.”

At the same time, he adds, “we have jobs to do, and much of this [activism] is a distraction from doing those jobs well”. That is both because taking institutional stands can undermine education by “signalling to students that there is a line in the sand on certain issues that cannot be crossed in discussions” and because advocacy takes up time that could otherwise be spent on teaching. “For the most part, universities aren’t paying us to be activists, and there is something unethical about doing too much activism at work,” he says.

The UK’s Conservative government, standing for re-election in today’s general election, appears to agree. Its Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill sought to “stop businesses and organisations – including those affiliated with Israel – being targeted through ongoing boycotts by public bodies – leading to community tensions and, in the case of Israel, a rise in antisemitism”. There was some debate about whether the bill, which received heavy criticism in some quarters, would cover universities, but it was progressing through Parliament before the announcement of the general election intervened.

Mintz is not alone in believing that boycotts are antithetical to education because they shut out one side of the argument. Geoffrey Alderman, principal of Nelson College London, argues that those who refuse to engage with Israeli universities are “shutting their ears and their eyes to critical dialogue that could, in fact, improve their own scholastic standing”. Even at the height of the anti-apartheid movement, he says, South Africa's academic institutions “were not boycotted because it was [considered] important for [academic] institutions in South Africa to maintain a dialogue with bona fide institutions outside”.

Moreover, even if an academic boycott achieved its desired aim, there is a risk that the end might not justify the means, according to Messina. For example, he notes that Israeli academics can credibly claim that the BDS movement discriminates against them – depriving them of important opportunities for professional advancement and belonging – because of where they happen to live.

Nor are targeted academics the only people negatively affected, he continues. All those who are “less convinced of a boycott’s aims” can also “reasonably object that the [BDS] efforts impede their academic freedom by inappropriately punishing dissent”, he says. “In certain conditions, these kinds of considerations can lead us to judge that a given boycott is unjustified even when its goal is good and [the boycott] would otherwise be an effective way of realising it.”

This is particularly the case when the boycott is endorsed and enacted institutionally, because that typically involves the majority, or even a loud minority, on campus speaking on behalf of colleagues who might not share their point of view, Messina says. “For this reason, it might be that academics can boycott, but universities ought to remain above the fray,” he says. “And it might be that boycotts should not proceed from academic bodies without clear grounds for establishing their mandate to speak on behalf of their dissenting members.”

But Yara Hawari, a British Palestinian academic who works for the Palestinian thinktank Al-Shabaka, says the right to academic freedom must come with the obligation to uphold the liberty of others. “The privileging of academic freedom as a value above all other freedoms is actually antithetical to the concept of human rights,” she says.

She believes that the BDS movement “is really just asking people around the world not to be complicit in the oppression of Palestinian people – it’s a bare minimum ask”.

David Ryder/Reuters

Messina thinks the “low prospects of success” for academic boycotts is another reason why they might be “inappropriate”. Indeed, some opponents of boycotts argue that they can be counterproductive because the individuals and institutions they target are often comparatively liberal and, therefore, potential allies in the struggle.

For instance, a former Russian scholar, who does not wish to be named, believes that the academic boycott of Russia is ineffective in part because it is portrayed as targeting Russia itself, rather than the architects of the invasion.

“I would stress that a boycott of Russian culture or science is not morally justified – it creates feelings of injustice and resentment among the Russian academics,” the scholar says, adding that boycotts are too extreme a weapon to be used frequently. “Collective punishments are morally questionable. So we need to be very clear what we want to achieve [through a boycott],” the scholar says.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, professor of anthropology at Columbia’s Barnard College, argues that boycotting Israeli universities is appropriate because “as was true in apartheid South Africa, universities are crucial sites for sustaining the structures of violence and rule that such boycotts struggle to dismantle. When governments don’t have the political will to hold Israel accountable, [boycotting] these spaces – academic and cultural – does have the potential to be very effective,” she believes.

“As has been evident over the past decade or more, calls for boycotting Israeli universities have gotten front-page news. It inserts a critical, political conversation about Palestine into the public domain – even as it also airs the vitriol of those who oppose that conversation,” she adds.

Riemer agrees. “Higher education is essential to Israel’s programme of apartheid and genocidal violence against Palestinians,” he says. “Isolating Israeli universities internationally not only contributes to the pressure on Israeli society to change course, it also directly obstructs the ideological and technical infrastructure of Israeli anti-Palestinianism.”

Nor does Riemer have any sympathy with the idea that boycotts are an aberration in an academic environment centred on free enquiry. “Academics are ‘boycotting’ each other all the time,” he says. “Academics are continually making professional judgements, often politically motivated, about who they will and won’t collaborate with and which kinds of association they will and won’t have.”

Since Israel’s military campaign in Gaza began, the pro-Palestinian BDS movement has gained unprecedented support, according to PACBI. Universities in Norway, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa and Spain have agreed to suspend or review ties with Israeli academic institutions. And while Columbia University rejected calls to divest from Israel, Union Theological Seminary, an affiliated college, said it will support calls to divest from “companies substantially and intractably benefiting from the war in Palestine”. Elsewhere in the US, Brown University will vote on divestment, while others, such as Johns Hopkins University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have announced reviews.

Giving in to the demands does not come without risks, however. After agreeing to offer more transparency about its weapons research, the University of Sydney has been accused of both capitulating to students and trying to pull the wool over their eyes.

Either way, the pro-Palestinian encampments on campuses “have made a quite significant contribution to public debate about Palestine and have captured something in the public imagination and moved things forward quite considerably”, says Riemer. “Regardless of the tangible extent to which their demands are met, their ideological and political effect will take some time to play out and will be enduring, and it’s to their enormous credit.”

PACBI has said the mobilisations have “given Palestinians hope, in very dark times”, and, in a statement of its own, the West Bank’s Birzeit University has said the Western students’ voices are heard and appreciated there. Indeed, the Palestinian Authority itself declared that the global student movement will help to “bring justice” to Gaza and the West Bank.

Similarly, Sirke Mäkinen, lecturer in Russian and Eurasian studies at the University of Helsinki, says the first goal of the Russian boycott is to show support to Ukraine and Ukrainian academics. More than two years into the war, the overarching goal – “to cause symbolic and material damage so that Russia would need to change its policy and stop this war” – has demonstrably not yet been achieved, Mäkinen concedes, “and at the moment, it seems unlikely that it will be achieved in the near future either.” Nevertheless, “if the boycott assists in raising awareness of the crimes that Russia is committing against Ukraine, then it already constitutes a success”, she believes.

Riemer, too, admits that conditions in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have only got worse since the BDS movement started about 20 years ago. “Politics isn’t deterministic, though,” he reflects. “It’s not as if in any political campaign you can take one action and then identify a linear, certain mechanistic effect that it’s going to have.”

He also thinks it is “very obvious that the Israeli state and its supporters internationally are deeply rattled by the boycott campaign”. Even before the Gaza war, he says, the Israeli government was expending “astronomical” sums to quash boycott initiatives and to target BDS movements, which he sees as a measure of the movement’s effectiveness.

And while the boycott of Russia was a largely spontaneous response to the invasion, supporters of the movements to boycott Israel and fossil fuel companies see them as responses to the failure of “critical engagement” with opponents, over many years, to influence their behaviour. Far from shutting down debate on Israel, for instance, Riemer believes the BDS campaign is actually about opening up the conversation to a Palestinian perspective, which has been largely ignored previously.

“The BDS movement emerged, generally, as a result of the failure of dialogue,” he says. “The two-state solution is increasingly acknowledged as completely unviable, and that’s where dialogue has got us to. It’s comforting to think that dialogue is always the solution, but that’s a particularly simplistic view.”

Invest for Change’s Coleman says the divestment approach to fossil fuel companies is also a response to the failure of dialogue.

“The divestment debate does hinge around whether you engage with [the fossil fuel companies] and try and have good guys in the room,” he says. But since that tactic has failed, he believes, the only answer is to say, “We’re going to divest and send as strong a signal as possible.”

After all, he adds – adopting another of Einstein’s famous aphorisms – “It’s the definition of madness to keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect a different result.”

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