Lecturers from Cambridge, SOAS and LSE were among those who condemned the decision to intervene in a panel event hosted by the student-run Cambridge University Palestine Society (PalSoc).
University officials contacted organizers hours before the “BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) and the globalized struggle for Palestinian rights” event was due to begin, insisting that its director of communications Paul Mylrea replace SOAS academic Ruba Salih as the panel’s chair.
Organizers agreed after being told the event would be canceled if they refused to comply.
Jamie Woodcock, a fellow at LSE, told Arab News that Cambridge University’s decision is part of a “broader worrying trend.”
“Time and time again we are seeing managers move in to control events, or shut them down all together, under the cover of ‘security concerns’ or ‘impartiality.’ In fact what we are seeing is an undermining of civil liberties, academic freedom, and the right to free political expression.”
In a press release, PalSoc criticized the “heavy-handed, authoritarian intervention by university management in the panel on human rights.
“Their replacement of a Palestinian woman with a white male member of university management, with no substantiation of their claim that the former was incapable of neutrality other than racialized insinuation, sends deeply disturbing signals about the prevalence of institutionalized discrimination at Cambridge.
“Similar events at LSE ... raise the same concerns.”
The Cambridge University panel included pro-Palestinian speakers including Omar Barghouti and former NUS President Malia Bouattia.
Describing the university’s decision as “a form of censorship as well as an undermining of academic freedom,” Bouattia said that “one is left wondering if the same would have happened if the event was chaired by a white man, or organized by another group than the Palestine society.”
In a statement, a spokesperson for Cambridge University said: “The university is fully committed to freedom of speech and expression. We do understand that certain events and issues invoke strong feelings among people and communities. But we believe it is important that staff, students and visitors to the university can participate fully in legitimate debate, partly so that they are able to question and test controversial ideas.
“We have no reason to believe that these events are in any way unlawful. Events will be well-chaired in order to ensure open, robust and lawful debate. In this instance, following calls from the organizers for extra safety measures, a neutral chair was provided to ensure that all sides were represented in what is an important and often emotionally charged debate.”
But the open letter signed by academics said, “It is disturbing that university authorities consider appropriate such censorship, including the forced imposition of an ‘independent chair,’ on an event designed to raise awareness about the human rights of Palestinians and indigenous peoples around the world.
“In doing so, it risks being seen to side with those who seek to silence the voices of the marginalized, and raises questions about the extent of its commitment to free speech.”
Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer at Churchill College, Cambridge, was among the first to sign the open letter.
“This is a manifest violation of academic freedom. I am also deeply concerned at the implicit racial politics of such a move which in this case has involved replacing a respected female academic of color with a purportedly ‘neutral’ white man,” she said.
“There is no such thing as ‘neutrality’ in historical and political matters: All academics are enjoined and able to conduct robust and open discussions.”