Umist should abandon boycott 'witch-hunt'

November 8, 2002

The university should stop hounding Mona Baker and defend scholarly freedom, say Michael Cohen and Colwyn Williamson.

Translation studies is a discipline that does not normally attract attention, but Mona Baker, a professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, has been thrust into the limelight. She was denounced by public figures ranging from the novelist Howard Jacobson to Estelle Morris, the former secretary of state for education, and the "psychic" Uri Geller. Her photograph in the Jewish Telegraph appeared beneath a headline about "race-hate".

What did she do to merit this vilification? In April and May the world watched the actions of the Israeli Defence Force in the West Bank. Academic unions in the UK responded with a call for their members to review links with Israel and for a moratorium on European funding until the country began peace negotiations with the Palestinians. Professor Baker is involved in two specialist journals, The Translator and Translation Studies Abstracts , both published by St Jerome's Press. A month after Hilary and Steven Rose launched their petition for an academic boycott, Professor Baker, who had signed the petition, was moved by the Israeli army's attack on Jenin to sever links between her publications and two editorial advisers, Miriam Shlesinger of Bar-Ilan University and Gideon Toury of Tel Aviv University. She explained that she did this not because they were Israelis or because they were Jews, but because of their institutional affiliations. This did not deter Daniel Rose, the National Union of Students' anti-racism campaign convener, from describing the decision as "nothing short of racism".

On the face of it, there was not much that the critics could do about Professor Baker's actions. St Jerome's Press is a small independent firm run by Professor Baker and her husband. But she is professor of translation studies and director of the Centre for Translation and Intercultural Studies at Umist. Her enemies, therefore, turned their fire on the university. The vice-chancellor initially dissociated the publications from the institute, saying that editorial policy was "entirely a matter for those journals". But five days later he announced that there would be a "wide-ranging... internal inquiry". It may be that Umist was put under pressure by bodies such as the Association for Jewish Studies, based at Brandeis University in the US, which invited those who visited its website to write in protest to the vice-chancellor of Umist.

The form and purpose of the inquiry, to be headed by Peter Norbury of the law firm Eversheds, remained obscure for several months, but in September the assistant registrar revealed that its remit would cover "all issues arising from Professor Baker's decision to remove two Israeli academics from the boards of her two independently owned journals". Manchester's student newspaper reported this announcement under the headline "Racism enquiry".

Professor Baker has been told that she is a key witness, and that, in line with Umist procedure, she may be accompanied by a trade union representative. It is, of course, normal for someone accused of an offence to be accompanied in this way: why would a witness need assistance from her trade union? We asked Umist to tell us under which of its regulations the inquiry is constituted; it has refused to say. So far as we can tell, the whole procedure is ultra vires . To make matters worse, senior officials at Umist have pre-empted the outcome by publicly condemning Professor Baker's stand on Israel.

Umist insists that the Norbury inquiry is not a disciplinary procedure. But it is asked to reach conclusions on disciplinary matters such as whether she breached Umist regulations, and its remit is to consider whether, in light of [her] actions, other aspects of Professor Baker's role at Umist require examination and if the management of the Centre for Translation Studies requires examination.

The brief, in short, is to go on a fishing expedition for administrative and financial irregularities, or - to put it more bluntly - to dig for dirt. Professor Baker is clearly in danger of victimisation. It is not the business of the Council for Academic Freedom to comment on the boycott of Israel or on how she chose to support it. It is our business to defend the freedom of academics "to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward... controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions". This is why we defended Israelis such as Mordechai Vanunu and Ilan Pappe, and this is why we are calling on Umist to abandon what threatens to become a witch-hunt against Mona Baker.

Michael Cohen and Colwyn Williamson are founding members of the Council for Academic Freedom.

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