Universities and academic organizations have much to contribute to contemporary political conflicts by supporting forums for debate, research, and analysis that might lead to deeper understanding and (even) plausible solutions.
Let us start out with the premise that most readers should agree with—universities are not established to be ideological organizations. Subsequently, universities should take corporate political positions only with extreme care. A related principle is that universities, as part of their commitment to academic freedom, should welcome all opinions on campus and permit unfettered free speech. This includes speakers who have been invited to campus by academic or student organizations even if their views have been rejected by segments of the university community. Where else but within the academic environment can divergent, contradictory ideas be discussed and debated without censorship?
Disciplinary societies in the US and similar groups in the United Kingdom are not universities, but likewise, they should also avoid corporate political stands. Their political posturing inevitably reflects the views of an aggressive and vocal segment within their society, if that. The main point, however, is that like universities, these associations should be forums for academic discussion and pursuits, and the value of these societies is diminished when they become political lobbies.
It is also disturbing that some countries have been singled out for censure while others have been ignored. Most recently, Israel has been the target of many boycotts. There may be much to criticize about Israel’s policies, but there is much to condemn elsewhere as well— Hamas’s executions of suspected Israeli collaborators, Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, Uganda’s repression of gays, Islamist executions of non-Muslims in Iraq and Syria, China’s repression of dissident opinions and academic freedom, to list only a few other candidates worthy of denunciation. If academic societies are going to take political stands, why single out a single country or conflict for censure when so many countries commit similar abuses? Why not sanction everyone? But the important question here is whether it is the role of the academic community to pronounce judgment rather than provide an unencumbered setting for research and discussion that might lead to better understanding of how these tragedies have come about.
World affairs will probably always provide extensive fodder for campus debate but that does not necessarily support taking institutional positions. One could argue that there have been a few occasions when the academic community took a political stand that was instrumental in resolving injustice. American universities perhaps played a role in ending the war in Vietnam, and may have contributed to the end of apartheid in South Africa. But this is not a card to be played lightly. Universities and academic organizations have much to contribute by supporting forums for debate and analysis that might lead to understanding, insights, compromise, or plausible resolution. They are less useful when they stand in judgment.
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