Globe and Mail

Boycott of Israeli universities upsets Canadian academics

June 20, 2007

Elizabeth Church

The leaders of two major Canadian universities have added their voices to growing international opposition to a boycott of Israeli universities being considered by a British academic union.

University of British Columbia president Stephen Toope and McGill University principal Heather Munroe-Blum have both expressed their opposition in open letters posted on their universities' websites.

"Protection of academic freedoms, and that includes the freedom to collaborate with academic partners anywhere in the world on important issues, is absolutely fundamental to the mission of a university," Ms. Munroe-Blum said in an interview yesterday. "This proposed boycott needs to be denounced widely."

The letters come after similar statements by leading U.S. academics, including Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, and also the past president of the University of Toronto; and Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University. They are in response to a motion passed by the recently created British academic association, the University and College Union. That motion endorsed the circulation of information, and discussion of an appeal, by Palestinian trade unions to boycott Israeli academic and cultural activities.

Ms. Munroe-Blum said this is not the first time the issue has been raised among British academics, but she felt it was important to take a firm stand early in the process. "We can't be complacent about challenges to freedom of speech, freedom of collaboration. Why would you sit back passively and wait until it is a fait accompli?"

Mr. Toope posted his letter on the UBC website late last week in response to questions from the media on the issue, a university spokesman said. "The attempt by one group of scholars to stifle the views of another is an affront to modern society, and must be condemned wherever it arises," the letter states.

James Turk, the executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said his group has no plans to take a stand on the matter.