On Gaza, free speech and the adversarial nature of British academia

By an anonymised LSE academic

Ivy League universities in the US have been heavily scrutinised over the past months for their handling of the events of October 7, 2023, Israel’s response to the events, and campus responses from pro-Palestinian groups; it ultimately led to the resignation of the President of the University of Pennsylvania and was a contributing factor to the resignation of the President of Harvard University. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, there has been no substantive scrutiny and there have been no resignations at British universities for the same reasons. This poses what initially appears to be the right question: what are British universities doing right, that their American counterparts are struggling with?

But I think this ignores a key difference, and it is important, particularly in the context of the current conflict in the Middle East. Over the past few years, British universities have increasingly taken a position of ‘institutional neutrality,’ which broadly means that the university itself will not take a position on anything (not sides in a war, and several have withdrawn from high-profile organisations designed to support minority groups on campus, such as Stonewall). 

The argument that has been made in support of this approach is a combination of the following: “who is the university anyway? An institution is not a real person”. If an institution is its staff, it is likely that on any issue the opinions of staff would diverge so significantly that it would not be possible to put forward a consensus view. At best, such an expressed view would represent a majority of staff, and can a majority view ever accurately represent an institution’s view? British universities have made clear that, in this environment of institutional neutrality, the only thing they will protect is academic freedom of speech and this is presented as being unapologetically clear and without problem.

There are a couple of challenges with this.

First, in the context of the current conflict in the Middle East, antisemitic as well as Islamophobic attacks have increased since October 7. Generally, in British universities, Professors may specialise in disciplines such as international law and human rights, but there are no equivalents who teach and research the laws and customs of Judaism, Islam, other religions, and of Israel and other states in the Middle East. This means any debate or exchange of ideas, in relation to the current conflict in the Middle East, is occurring between a member of faculty in their professional capacity and a staff member or student in their personal capacity. Due to the rise in antisemitism and Islamophobia, for the staff member or student who is engaging in their personal capacity, merely participating in such an exchange feels like it puts one at risk. In my experience, it is very difficult to have such exchanges without accidentally ‘outing’ your religious views. I backed down and out of a conversation when I got close to this line because I was worried about potential repercussions, even though I suspect my colleague could guess the basis of my ideas. This reality seems to be overlooked at the moment, but it is important because it makes it extremely difficult to have a frank exchange of ideas.

At this time, some faculties are encouraging staff and students to engage in discussions relating to the current conflict in the Middle East. This is healthy as it is likely to promote greater understanding. However, in my experience, because my religious beliefs are involved, discussions take bandwidth. The days I feel up for engaging do not always align with the opportunities to do so, like events organised to promote discussion of significant developments. 

However, in pursuing institutional neutrality, British universities seem to be wanting us to do something different – to be active participants in a debate – and, in my experience, this makes the expectation of those whose religious beliefs are involved, and who are in the minority on campus in this particular conflict, very high. If we do not engage, in my experience, our viewpoint is unrepresented. 

The second problem is that, when exchanges do happen, they tend to be adversarial (i.e. each person takes and defends a different position). As such an approach can be perceived to be confrontational, it may prompt some to withdraw and others to become defensive and more entrenched in their views. This approach may harden minds, rather than opening them, at a time when there is already division and the issues, history, and solutions are complex. 

One of the challenges of the modern world is that social media has democratised opinions. This removes the need, and perhaps the norm, for opinions to be fully informed, and this – perhaps coupled with academics’ desire to build their individual reputations – has encouraged academic exchanges to become more of an exercise of pitting divergent views against one another with no real resolution and possibly upsetting the academics involved. My argument is that academia needs to do more. Rather than presenting the other person with a position and trying to persuade them that it is the correct one, even without the benefit of full evidence or information, and then either being victorious in success or ignoring them if they continue to disagree, it would be beneficial for society for the exchange to be framed differently. Key questions on both sides should be – what does this view or conclusion I have drawn based on the facts I think are correct ignore about the whole context? What can you (the other academic or person in the exchange) see that I can’t? If we were going to find a way to fix this, what would potential suggestions be? What suggestions address the concerns of both sides? 

This approach is collaborative and contributes to the broader benefit of society because it has the potential to provide nuanced and interdisciplinary solutions to match the complexity of the nuanced and interdisciplinary problems that the world is currently facing. As an example relating to the current conflict in the Middle East, some countries have been involved in extensive discussions and negotiations to find sufficient agreement between the Israeli government and Hamas to support a ceasefire in Gaza. While we hope those efforts are successful, there is a possibility that they will not be. However, that is a far more valuable exercise than publishing blog posts, opinion pieces, and articles that only alienate the current parties involved, escalate, and exacerbate the conflict, potentially driving a bigger conceptual divide between the ‘sides’ (and I write this recognising the irony of writing an article to set out this argument).

If we are sincere in our belief as academics that universities can contribute to the betterment of society, then maybe we need to reflect more on our real potential to do this and work more collaboratively. Maybe then, and only then, can British universities claim any sort of moral high ground over their American counterparts in relation to cultivating genuine freedom of speech on campuses, and especially the type that contributes to the betterment of society. 

An anonymised LSE academic looks at the relationships between the crisis in Gaza, institutional neutrality and academic discourses.


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

On Key

Related Posts

scroll to top