David Duncan is Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary at University of Glasgow

Twenty-four years ago, when I was teaching a South African history course at St Andrews, the then Principal invited former President FW de Klerk to speak on campus.

De Klerk had been an uncompromising education minister when I lived in Johannesburg, but by 2000 he was fêted as the man who forged an alliance with Nelson Mandela, led this country to multi-party democracy and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the drinks party afterwards, I had the chance to ask him the final seminar question in the course – why did de Klerk relinquish power? “Because it was obviously the right thing to do,” he replied. In his mind, it wasn’t a question of being forced to act by practical considerations such as sanctions or insurrection – he made a moral choice in very difficult circumstances and he saw it through.

There are other moral as well as practical dilemmas now facing UK universities, the key one being: how should we respond to the crisis in the Middle East?

Doing the right thing

Since the terrible events of 7 October, this is a question many senior managers have been considering yet there has been little public discussion about the approach being taken on campus. This may be partly to do with fear of causing offence – a concern made deeper by the entrenched and at times diametrically opposed positions of different groups. The conflict has long had the capacity to divide opinion like no other but the tensions on campus have become much more acute following the Hamas attacks on Israel and the subsequent Israeli invasion of Gaza. The reaction across much of HE has been to say as little as possible, with some resorting to the defence that universities cannot and should not comment on political matters.

Personally, I take a different view – probably closer to that of Jonathan Grant’s recent piece on Wonkhe. Universities don’t need to comment on every situation but they ought to be prepared to live up to their values and should not be afraid to take a stand on major humanitarian issues. For that reason, I am proud that Glasgow was one of the first British universities to call for the immediate release of all hostages and a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza.

There are, of course, many pitfalls. Critics point out inconsistencies when university leaders make statements about the Russian invasion of Ukraine but remain silent on the Middle East – at least one continental institution has been exposed for this on social media, with its statements on the two conflicts placed alongside each other for all to compare.

The slightest nuance can be picked up, analysed, mis-interpreted and represented as an egregious example of double standards, prejudice or political incorrectness. Accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia are constantly levelled, as well as claims of tone deafness or even hate crime. Universities are accused of supporting genocide because their funds are invested in the UK defence sector, they undertake research for defence companies and allow those firms to recruit their students on campus.

By the same token, HEIs are castigated for permitting expressions of opinion or allegiance on campus to which others object, or conversely for stifling freedom of expression among students and staff.  Marches and demonstrations on campus, the flying of flags, the use of certain phrases and the choice of speakers at events are all held to be controversial by one side or the other. In this context, university leaders can be forgiven for treading carefully, weighing up every word and focusing on what they can do for members of their communities who are adversely affected by the conflict.

The call to take sides

All university leaders are aware of the need to support students and staff who are traumatised by the events in the Middle East while simultaneously upholding free speech on campus. Individuals may complain they are offended by the statements or actions of others; institutions then have to assess whether the subject of the complaint has crossed the line or if they have merely expressed views or allegiances which others find disagreeable.

Again, it’s clear from Universities UK forum that all institutions are actively reaching out to the groups most affected – principally Muslim and Jewish students and staff – to provide reassurance and support, to keep lines of communication open and to let individuals know that the university is there for them. Vigils which allow the university community to express its sorrow have an important part to play and have become a feature of life on many campuses.

It becomes more difficult when the institution is called on to take sides. Should we disinvest in the arms trade, to express our unhappiness with weapons sales to the IDF? Should we light up our buildings in the colours of the Palestinian flag – or the Israeli flag? If we are prepared to do this when Ukraine is attacked, why not when people are being killed in Gaza or Israel? Who should be consulted on the definition of antisemitism we adopt? Is it acceptable for lecturers to express personal views on the conflict in class, or in their academic writing? Should we ban use of the phrase “from the river to the sea”? And should students be allowed time off from class to take part in demonstrations? We have been asked to make decisions on these and many other questions in the past few weeks.

Different institutions will reach slightly different answers on some of these questions – there is not always a self-evidently right thing to do. For my part, I strongly believe that universities should uphold the principle of free speech even where it has the capacity to cause offence. Academics should be at liberty to express opinions on the conflict but should do so in a non-partisan way, using their expertise to explain the complexities of this issue. Students should be free to show their allegiances by participating in demonstrations, provided they are peaceful. We should take our cue from the police and the courts as to whether specific political slogans are acceptable or not.  And on the question of adopting the IHRA definition – I don’t see the definition itself as preventing legitimate criticism of Israel and its government, though I recognise there are profound differences of opinion on this.

As for disinvestment – the last time this was raised at Glasgow, the university court (our governing body) elected to retain its holdings in defence companies while lobbying government and the companies themselves about overseas sales. Pressed by a student group and one of the campus trade unions, we are now looking at it again; it will be for the court to decide whether we retain or amend our institutional approach.

And finally, on the question of aid for academics and students in Gaza – should we be prepared to extend such support?  Most definitely we should – especially a university like ours, which has had academic links with the Islamic University of Gaza. What form that support takes may be difficult to determine but at the least, we should be ready to call for a ceasefire, to condemn unequivocally the killing of innocent civilians, and if possible, to offer scholarships and jobs where we can to individuals.

A space for debate

In the longer term, UK universities should surely seek to identify ways to resolve the conflict. Even as the fighting, suffering and dying continue we should be turning minds to reconstruction and development, to peace-making and institution building.

This is perhaps the most important role the higher education sector can play – creating the space for informed debate about the way forward and guiding our political leaders towards a lasting, equitable settlement. I hope our universities measure up to the task.

The author is writing in a personal capacity.

One response to “Reflections on UK universities and the crisis in the Middle East

  1. Also, consider the wellbeing of staff carrying out investigations in this area who will be accused of having an anti-Israel bias, and a pro-Israel bias….sometimes in respect of the same decision!

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