National Association of Scholars

Comments of Peter W. Wood, Executive Director

June 5, 2007

Why Political Boycotts of Universities Are a Bad Idea

On April 22, the annual council meeting of the 40,000-member British Association of University Teachers (AUT) approved a boycott of two Israeli institutions, Haifa University and Bar Ilan University. AUT’s goal is to pressure Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.

On May 26, AUT reversed course and decided against a boycott.

On May 30, the British University and College Union’s (UCU) congress passed a resolution calling for “dialog” rather than boycott, and raising the bar for boycotts and “greylisting” to “exceptional” situations in which “a legitimate organization within the state, or within the occupied territory or institution in question” requests a boycott.

These events have occasioned much commentary and debate within Britain and internationally. The announced boycott was widely and, it seems, effectively criticized. But the abandonment of this particular boycott was, unfortunately, accompanied by statements from many faculty members defending the principle of boycotting universities as a tool of pressuring governments.

I deplore this tactic.
Few if any political circumstances warrant a boycott of a nation’s universities or of a particular university. A boycott forecloses principled intellectual exchange and rational debate, and in so doing undermines the basis of the university itself.

Boycotts are an instrument of collective will bent on imposing a policy, rather than persuading anyone that the policy should be adopted on its merits. Those in the academy who prefer force to rational persuasion, or who turn to force when faced with their failure to persuade, in effect resign their own claims to academic freedom. Our freedom to pursue truth and to present our views publicly without fear of persecution depends crucially on our respecting this freedom for others. Boycotts trespass on this freedom. They deny to other academics and scholars the basic freedoms to speak and to be heard. They do so with no semblance of due process for those who suffer the consequences. The boycott by its nature reduces the individual scholar to an indistinguishable hireling of an institution.

When if ever would a boycott of a nation’s universities be appropriate? The West did not boycott Soviet or Eastern Block universities during the Cold War. Even in times of severe international tension, universities have striven to keep contacts alive across international borders. Sometimes those lines of communication are severed because of state policies, but boycotting a nation’s universities in a time of peace has few precedents. The most noteworthy was the boycott of South African institutions called by the African National Congress in 1959. Even among activists who heeded that call with respect to many South African institutions, few engaged in a boycott of South African universities.

Advocates of boycotting the Israeli universities do pose arguments in defense of the tactic, and those arguments must be acknowledged and answered.

In “The AUT Boycott: Freedom vs. ‘Academic Freedom’,” Omar Barghouti and Lisa Taraki, for examples, declare that the denial of “basic rights’ to Palestinians by Israel supervenes regard for mere “academic rights.” They criticize what they call the “privileging of academic freedom as a super-value above all other freedoms,” which they say is “antithetical to the very foundation of human rights.”

The right to live, and freedom from subjugation and colonial rule, to name a few, must be of more import than academic freedom. If the latter contributes in any way to suppression of the former, more fundamental rights, it must give way. By the same token, if the struggle to attain the former necessitates a level of restraint on the latter, then be it. It will be well worth it.

This is clear and well stated. But is it true? Is academic freedom subordinate in a principled sense to other more “basic rights?” And is academic freedom that “contributes in any way” to an oppressor’s ability to oppress thereby rendered morally void? Must it “give way” to any and every struggle for “basic rights?”

First, if Barghouti and Taraki’s position is correct, academic freedom is reduced to a will-o-wisp concept. In the dominant view of the academic Left, worldwide, “basic rights” and freedoms are always under assault. Where would we find the university in which academic freedom would be respected as an intact principle and not be forced to “give way” to the expediencies of political struggle? There is no safeguard in this position against extremism.

Second, if Barghouti and Taraki are correct, academic freedom is forfeit to any political movement sufficiently aggressive to challenge it. What modern political movement is so feeble that it cannot pose its objectives as a matter of “basic rights?” Hidden not so far from the surface of their argument is the idea that Plato put into the mouth of Thrasymachus— that might makes right. There is no safeguard in their position against coercion.

Third, if Barghouti and Taraki are correct, academic freedom is always suspect. If it contributes “in any way” to the suppression of “basic rights,” it must be chopped down. Where in an age where the academy is saturated with ideas about ‘knowledge contributing to oppression’ and a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ is there a university that could pass this test? Always and everywhere, the university draws its resources from society and contributes something in return. If academic freedom can only be respected in cases where the university is deemed in no way whatsoever complicit with the delicts of its surrounding society, it has no weight of its own. There is no safeguard in this position against intellectual frivolity.

Barghouti and Taraki are, however, right about one thing: the AUT boycott does indeed demote the concept of academic freedom to a subsidiary status. In their view, that’s a victory of progressive politics. In my view, it is a dangerous assault on the intellectual foundations of the university.

Boycotts are wrong because they subordinate reason to force, persuasion to pressure, and individual conscience to group identity. The arguments in defense of boycotts are facile defenses of making intellectual freedom subject to a series of political checkpoints, and they open the door to extremism, coercion, and frivolity in the place of serious academic debate.

Perhaps a time will come when we will see a good argument for boycotting a university on political grounds, but the debate over the British Association of University Teachers’ abandoned boycott of two Israeli universities has failed to advance a single good reason to set aside the principles of free and open academic exchange.