LETTER: Boycotts are an unsound academic ‘principle’
UCT’s call to boycott Israeli academic institutions is anathema to the free and unrestricted exchange of ideas
I am a proud graduate of the University of Cape Town (UCT). For decades in different settings throughout the world I have praised the quality of a UCT education — the intellectual environment, the free and unrestricted exchange of ideas, and the commitment to its students and society, all of which a UCT education embodies.
It is at UCT I was first was introduced to the concept of academic freedom, a concept I have cherished since. This is why learning that the university is considering an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions leaves me with such a sense of deep dismay.
At first glance it seems such an obvious and satisfying way to express political disapproval — as academics, an academic boycott is our most accessible weapon. But closer scrutiny, compels the question, does it accomplish the desired outcome? Some, even many, academics subject to the boycott may support our views and, for those who do not, surely the most effective way to change their minds and attitudes is through the force of scholarly discourse and the exchange of ideas.
While not as easily accessible, and certainly not as immediately gratifying, this is the approach that is consistent with the principles and ideals of academic freedom.
Even, were it an effective or an appropriate response to policies with which we disagree, there is then the matter of consistency: do we boycott the academics in every country whose policies are inconsistent with our beliefs. Beliefs, for example, on territorial occupation — China and Tibet, India and Kashmir; the settlement of refugees, Hungary or the US; LGBTQ rights in most Arab countries; or capital punishment, the US and Japan; or a free press ... the list of offences and offending countries goes on.
Which leads one to ask, is there a line of demarcation between those countries whose academic institutions we do or do not boycott? Does a violation of just one of the above warrant a boycott, or two, or more, or perhaps all of the above? Or is there a hierarchy of values — the presence of capital punishment more important than a free press; or territorial occupation more important than LGBTQ rights? Even were there a logical and universally accepted way to answer these questions, a boycott is neither an effective nor an appropriate response to political disagreement.
In opposition to a boycott, some have argued that a boycott may not be in our interest, particularly when the boycotted country is rich in ideas, technology and collaborative opportunities. This is not an argument worthy of support. Some principles are worthy of self-sacrifice. But this is not such a principle, indeed, it is in violation of our core principles.
We should reject the notion of an academic boycott because it violates our central scholarly mission — the free and unbridled exchange of ideas with the ultimate goal of the advancement of knowledge. UCT should not proceed with this or any future boycott.
Prof Roy Freeman
Harvard Medical School