SOAS pledges ‘stand against antisemitism’ without IHRA definition

Hepi event also hears v-cs argue that free speech rows reflect wider social issues ‘at play in universities’ as key sites of debate

February 23, 2021
SOAS University of London
Source: iStock

There are “challenges of antisemitic behaviour” in SOAS University of London, but the institution will “stand against” such conduct without adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, according to its new director.

Adam Habib spoke at a vice-chancellors’ question time event, organised by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) and Advance HE, at which leaders also argued that controversies over campus free speech reflected wider issues in society that were “at play in universities” as key sites for debate.

Crossbench peer Baroness Deech asked Professor Habib what steps he would take to “change the allegedly toxic antisemitic atmosphere on the SOAS campus” and whether he would “encourage the school to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism”, as the government has urged all English universities to do.

SOAS refunded a student £15,000 in fees after he said he was forced to abandon his studies because of a “toxic antisemitic environment”, it was reported in December.

Professor Habib told the event, held virtually on 23 February, that there were “challenges of antisemitic behaviour, individual cases in SOAS, as exist in many other places”.

The SOAS board of trustees has adopted at his request, he said, a “SOAS charter of values”, making clear that the institution “abhors all forms of discrimination, including racism, including antisemitism, including Islamophobia, and that we’re going to stand firmly against all of this”, and that it will “advance these values in a manner that ensures academic freedom continues” and will “apply equally our practices to all those who violate these value systems”.

Professor Habib continued: “If somebody is teaching in a course about why the boycott and disinvestment campaign is an appropriate campaign in the Israeli conflict, we’re going to allow that. Because that’s allowed by the right of academic freedom.

“But we will allow as much the critique of the boycott and disinvestment campaign, by another scholar or by another student, because that is also to be defended by the agenda [the SOAS charter].”

It was possible to achieve a culture that does not “tolerate any racist or discriminatory behaviour…without adopting one or other definition”, Professor Habib said.

He added: “We need to focus on the big picture, not on what one or other political group would like us to do.”

Asked about free speech generally following high-profile government interventions, Adam Tickell, vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, said “nuance” in the debate has been lost. Wider social issues are “playing out in universities”, which “are expected to be the ground on which we resolve these irresolvable differences and tensions”, he said, citing the example of transgender rights.

Sussex aims “to create a culture where it’s OK for people to respect difference of opinions” rather than the university taking sides, with the required approach being “a defence of traditional liberal values which we lose at our peril”, he added.

Sally Mapstone, vice-chancellor of the University of St Andrews, said a “social media context in which the tendency is to shut down things you don’t want to think or hear about” was one factor in why free speech has been “quite so difficult to handle institutionally” for universities “and has brought the interventions we’ve seen”.

She added: “I do think it’s important for vice-chancellors and others to redouble our efforts to call out the dangers of de-platforming and remind students and others that there is no basic right not to be offended…One should be challenged.”

Professor Habib said the planned “government tsar” for free speech would “overtly politicise the question”. The aim was to “keep the free space of ideas – it seems to me that that’s necessary for the university project and that’s why it’s important”, he added.

Asked about the appointment of a Conservative peer to chair the Office for Students, the English regulator, Professor Tickell said: “I worry about it…It’s important to have a clear distinction between the state and the form of regulation.”

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