I was just about to head home when I came across a news item on Queen's University's website. The university's Principal, Karen Hitchcock, issued today a spirited defense of academic freedom and a withering attack on the British University and College Union's decision to call for debate on a petition calling for a boycott of Israel's universities because of the country's treatment of Palestinians over the years.
People who know me reasonably well, or read this blog regularly, will know that I do not shy away from saying what I think needs to be said, even if that occasionally puts people off. So, let me begin by saying that I genuinely do not know whether a boycott of Israel's universities would be a good or a bad thing. There are some good arguments in favour of a boycott and there are some good reasons against such a strategy. Martha Nussbaum puts a strong case against the boycott forward in Dissent magazine. Stephen Rose makes a strong case in favour of the boycott.
As a journal editor I found myself a few months back at the receiving end of criticism from an Israel based colleague who requested that the journal state unequivocally that it does not support any boycott of academics working in Israel. I refused at the time, because it all seemed nothing other than grandstanding and pointless arm twisting to me. None of the two journals that I am associated with as an Editor has considered or is considering boycotting submissions from authors situated in Israel. The same is true for any other country on this planet. We have published recently, in fact, a paper from a Sudanese academic. Arguably the government of Sudan is involved in genocidal mass murder (due to lack of oil nobody really cares much about this unfolding tragedy). Should we have boycotted the academic submission an author from Sudan put together (likely with great difficulty!)? We didn't. It did not seem sensible to do so. The author and his/her institution had nothing to do with the actions of their government, so why should we punish him/her? And what would change if we did (or, what would have changed?).
It seems to me that this is the really interesting question. Let's start with the basics then: those who have proposed in the past academic boycotts did so for at least one of two reasons. The first reason usually deployed was that universities were an integral part of an unjust system (eg many, but not all 'white' designated universities in South Africa discriminated against 'black' students in terms of admissions, teaching etc), and they ought to be punished for that. The second reason was that a gradual isolation of unjust regimes (such as that in South Africa) would weaken them and so contribute to their eventual fall. It is for the latter reason that more often than not sport organisations are the first to be called upon to boycott particular countries (sport boycotts are clearly seen to be more harmful to an unjust country's image than academic boycotts...).
Is there evidence that such image damaging activities work? The answer to this is unequivocally that this is the case. Even straightforward dictatorships (which Israel is not) try to maintain the veneer of a legitimate state/government upholding justice, law and order and so on and so forth. This is true even for pariah states such as Zimbabwe with its pseudo elections. One of the reasons for why amnesty international's campaigns are so successful is precisely because they aim at the crumbling veneer of civility of barbaric regimes.
This is then where the debate about academic boycotts should really be situated. I have been told by South African academics (who were opposed to the apartheid state - mind you, while they were reasonably safely ensconded in quite privileged, well-paid academic posts) that the apartheid government suffered tremendously under the various international boycotts and that it truly zapped the regime's morale. In its own right the boycotts would not have taken out the apartheid state, but the undoubtedly played a crucial supporting role.
So, the ethical question we need to ask is, of course, whether upholding academic freedom (by not supporting academic boycotts) is always the right thing to do. My answer to this question, based on the experiences made by organisations such as amnesty international and also based on the history of the boycott against apartheid South Africa, is that it is sometimes morally required to boycott unjust regimes. Such boycotts have been shown to work in the past, and therefore social utility (a desireable social outcome) can be achieved by participating in academic, sports and other boycotts. The position that boycotts are always wrong can probably only be sustained by assuming that academic freedom is of infinite (social?) value. I have trouble seeing how this could be justified/demonstrated.
Queen's University's Principal might well be right in suggesting that an academic boycott of academic institutions in Israel is the wrong thing to do. The trouble is that more needs to be said by way of justification than 'academic freedom' to sustain this point of view. Academic cooperation and collaboration in my humble opinion, areprima facie worthy of protection, but not always, and certainly not at all cost. What is required is a careful balancing of the costs and benefits of engaging in an academic boycott.
There's another issue I have with the Principal's statement. If academic debate and academic freedom are so important to her, how come she wants to preempt the currently ongoing UCU debate by pressuring the union publicly with statements such as her press release?
Let me conclude, perhaps, by quoting South African educator and University of Cape Town academic Prof Neville Alexander. He concluded a paper reflecting on the academic boycott with these eminently sensible words: "I have no doubt that when a state deliberately and systematically abuses human rights, a case can be made for academic boycott as part of an ensemble of punitive strategies to compel the state to right the situation. But sanctions and boycotts are always two-edged weapons. They should never be instituted without careful consideration of the likely effect on those whom they are supposed to help. Due attention should be given to the probable effects of a successful campaign so that the boycott does not become the proverbial cure worse than the disease."