Trinity College Dublin, 12 September 2017
Conference announcement and call for papers
Academic freedom includes the liberty of individuals to express freely opinions about the institution or system in which they work, to fulfil their functions without discrimination or fear of repression by the state or any other actor, to participate in professional or representative academic bodies, and to enjoy all the internationally recognized human rights applicable to other individuals in the same jurisdiction. The enjoyment of academic freedom carries with it obligations, such as the duty to respect the academic freedom of others, to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views, and to treat all without discrimination on any of the prohibited grounds (UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The Right to Education (Art.13),” December 8, 1999)
Questions of freedom of speech have been to the forefront in contemporary academic debate. Historically, universities have always provided space for critical thinking and engaged civil society activism. In recent years there has been much discussion about how neoliberalism in higher education has affected academic freedom and the expression of dissenting and controversial views. The conference examines these effects with particular reference to academic boycotts in general, and in particular the controversies surrounding the academic boycott of Israel.
There have been claims that austerity and the cuts in public funding for the higher education sector have led to universities responding by:
- Changing university culture to emphasise training for the job market at the possible expense of broader educational goals
- Hiring increasing numbers of temporary, adjunct and precarious academic staff
- Placing greater emphasis on research funding from public, EU and private sources, leading to increasing pressure on academics to seek and compete for scarce financial resources
- A greater reliance on managerialism, cost cutting and bureaucratic measures which put greater administrative pressure on academics
This response may result in stifling critical thinking, dissent and freedom of expression by academics and students and lead to self-censorship and curtailing expression on controversial topics. Today’s public university culture is shifting from one based on ‘the liberal university’ to one focused on a business model, the provision of training and resource management, all of which narrows the space for the exchange of ideas and for freedom of expression.
This has thrown into sharp relief a constant question for academics as to whether their role encompasses or precludes political activism – whether homo academicus should also be homo politicus. With growing global political polarisation, this question has returned to the spotlight with academics under fire for expressing political opinions in Turkey, the US and elsewhere.
The case of the academic boycott of Israel
Rather than examining these issues on either an abstract or an anecdotal level, the conference focuses on the hotly contested issue of academic boycott, as this offers a paradigmatic example of how controversial topics are dealt with by the contemporary university and of the effects of the neoliberalisation of the public university on academic freedom.
The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was initiated in 2004 to contribute to the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. It advocates for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions for their deep and persistent complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights – including academic freedom – that are stipulated in international law. Across the world, academics and students have responded to the Palestinian call for boycott by refusing to cooperate with Israeli higher education institutions on grounds of conscience. This stance has inevitably caused controversy in universities globally.
Since the academic boycott is a controversial topic, one would expect those who support the boycott to be challenged. However, the challenge rarely comes from within the world of ideas and is usually offered through a mixture of ‘lawfare’, bureaucratic strictures, threat to employment and disciplinary measures. In other words, the academic boycott of Israel is an arena in which disciplinarity – rather than the ideals of the liberal university – is brought to bear. While this is an unsatisfactory way of dealing with controversial topics, the question remains as to how university administrators and academics can best facilitate the free exchange of ideas in this arena.
Keynote speakers at the conference are Steven Salaita (Author of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, Steven was denied a Professorship in University of Illinois due to his views on Israel/Palestine and will speak on “Freedom to boycott: BDS and the modern University”), Kathleen Lynch (Chair of Equality Studies, UCD, specialising in neoliberalism and educational policy and theory), and John Reynolds (Department of Law, Maynooth University, specialising in international law and critical legal studies)
Call for papers
The conference does not propose to debate the pros and cons of the academic boycott of Israel but rather to make links and draw lessons about the role of the public university in fostering academic freedom, and the freedom to express critical, even if controversial views. We are inviting proposals for papers by academics at all levels as well as graduate students, university administrators and members of student groups and professional academic associations.
The conference will be interdisciplinary, situated between law, the arts, social sciences and humanities and will seek to include academics from Ireland and abroad, as well as university administrators and academics with practical experiences of the issues surrounding academic freedom in higher education.
We are inviting proposals for papers on:
- Academics as political actors and advocates
- Challenges to academic freedom and the freedom to dissent
- The practice of academic boycott and academic freedom
- The effects of ‘lawfare’ and disciplinary measures on support for the academic boycott of Israel
- Links between academic precarity, managerialism and disciplinarity
- Comparisons with previous academic boycotts, such as the boycott of Apartheid South Africa
We invite abstracts (up to 250 words) on any of the themes above or addressing related themes you feel deserve consideration. Abstracts should include a title, your email address and institutional affiliation if any (independent scholars are welcome to submit). Please send abstracts to David Landy at <firstname.lastname@example.org> by 1 July 2017.
Detailed information will be made available in due course, but this will be a one-day conference on 12 September 2017 at Trinity College Dublin, with a public lecture the evening before. The conference is hosted by the MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict in the Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin. Trinity was an early and important supporter of the academic boycott of Apartheid South Africa and remains well known for its liberal stance and openness towards diverse and dissenting voices.
Following the conference, the organisers intend to produce an edited collection of the papers in the form of either an edited book or a journal special issue
Dr David Landy, MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict, Trinity College Dublin
Dr Ronit Lentin, Associate Professor (retired), Sociology, Trinity College Dublin
Dr Conor McCarthy, School of English, Maynooth University