The conjoined rectors of Dutch universities have issued a threat to academic freedom. In a letter signed also by our rector, the administrators of our institutions make clear that they will protect what they see as academic freedom, unless the state tells them otherwise. The letter states that Dutch universities will not cut ties with Israeli institutions, unless asked to do so by the state. Both parts of that statement are an insult to academic freedom: not cutting ties with Israeli institutions means supporting and legitimating institutions that actively undermine academic freedom in Israel and Palestine. And changing course the moment the state deems it advisable to do so signals a blatant disregard for the fundamental nature of academic freedom in the Netherlands.

Let’s first be clear about one thing. Academic freedom is not an academic version of the right to free speech. It is a relation between an employer (the university) and its employees (teachers and researchers) that exists to ensure that teachers and researchers can do their job in accordance with evaluative criteria set by their peers and unhindered by forms of power, whether these are wealthy trustees, university boards, dominant professors, corporations, or politicians and the state. The main vehicle for safeguarding academic freedom as it developed in the last century is tenure. Academic freedom, then, has been under attack for a much longer time, since universities have over the course of decades moved to a significant number of flexible staff, who will be less likely to speak out against power if their new contract is pending.

Show a spine

With the recent letter, a new threat to academic freedom has been issued. It is now clear that university administrators see the state as ultimate arbiter in matters concerning the academic community. Emphasising academic freedom and, in the same piece, suggesting that they will only cut ties ‘when our government advises us to do so’ is a laughable contradiction and intellectually dishonest. With an extreme right government in the making, this political servility bodes ill. What other demands by the state will cause universities to yield to political pressure? When will they show a spine? What lessons does history teach us? Recent history, we are sorry to say, teaches us that the only times university boards are ready to confront government are when money is concerned. They’ll do anything to ensure more research funding and to protest cuts.

Dance to the tune of politicians

Who are these rectors speaking to? And on behalf of whom are they speaking? By by-passing academic communities and their consultation bodies, they speak as administrators, not as academics. And by opting for a newspaper op-ed and speaking not to their community but to a general public they signal to the incoming government that they will merely mewl ‘how high?’ when politicians say ‘jump’. They will dance to the tune of politicians. Similarly, as our rector said in Erasmus Magazine earlier this year, responding to comments that a Ukrainian flag had been raised but not a Palestinian one: “… there was a clear call from the Dutch government to start a boycott. It explicitly asked all Dutch universities to cut ties with Russia and Russian universities and to raise the Ukrainian flag in solidarity.” Rector Bredenoord later said she regretted this, but her recent collaboration with the joint rectors amounts to a repetition of this logic. Granting the state an immediate role in academic affairs, a role not mediated by democratic consultation, but translated top-down, is a clear violation of academic freedom – of real academic freedom, not the empty slogan rectors summon when they repackage submission to the state as faux-academic piety.

Lack of understanding

That our university administrators don’t have a clue as to what academic freedom means also becomes apparent in the absurd equation between academic freedom and ties with Israeli institutions complicit in apartheid, colonialism, and genocide. Not only do they fundamentally misrepresent the call for an institutional boycott, which does not bar individual scholars from working with individual Israeli colleagues; they also display a willful lack of understanding of the realities of Israeli universities and their ongoing and enthusiastic participation in Israeli state policies of dispossession, apartheid, criminalization, and the current genocide. For a good overview, I refer the rectors here to Maya Wind’s excellent study of these complicities titled Towers of Ivory and Steel. They are undoubtedly aware of this book and its contents, as our university recently hosted Maya Wind, as they are of the overwhelming evidence that academic freedom is severely lacking at the Israeli universities. Those curious to see what Israeli institutions do when their state is committing a genocide, should look no further than this promotional video by Reichmann University, in which Israeli university administrators proudly show their and their academic community’s full support for the extreme violence against Palestinians. Obediently churning out war propaganda, rallying behind the very troops with a sordid history of war crimes and atrocity crimes, and proudly claiming their allegiance to the Israeli state: these are the universities our rectors are eager to dialogue with.

Political choice to disregard expertise

By consistently reducing the curtailing of academic freedom in Israel to a matter of opinion, the rectors display a blatant disregard for the scientific and legal consensus. A shockingly anti-intellectual ignorance about the very meaning of academic freedom is mirrored by an equally ignorant stance on what we know about the complicity of Israeli institutions of higher education. Yet this is a learned ignorance. It is, in fact, a political choice to disregard expertise in this field and to reduce it to the level of opinion in a ‘two sides’ showdown. This is the format in which our university administrators like to capture the world. It gives them the comfortable role of facilitators of ‘dialogues’ in which ‘polarisation’ – conceived as inherently problematic – is to be smoothed over. Meanwhile students’ rightful protest of what they recognize as the university’s complicity with Israeli universities is systematically translated into a vocabulary of emotions, thereby translating a fundamentally public question into the language of private feelings. There is nothing private about living through the most well publicised genocide in history, however – and pretending that dialogues focused on safety and feelings are an adequate response to our responsibilities as an academic community is a depoliticisation strategy that is sure to fail.

Disrupt business as usual

Most of all, it ensures the smooth functioning of business as usual. The main reason for rectors’ willingness to collaborate with what their own experts call a ‘textbook case’ of genocide is that research funding is at stake, specifically in the form of various ERC-funded Horizon 2020 projects. Similarly, at our university, the board’s real solidarities are exemplified by the clearing of the student encampment – sneakily conducted on a Sunday, maximally out of sight, though recorded by the new CvB CCTV – to make way for a ‘Wellbeing Week’ and a ‘HeartBeat Festival’ (I’m not kidding, and it isn’t funny). Their solidarities lie not with students exercising their right to demonstrate (which means: to disrupt business as usual as a democratic right), not with academic freedom, and not with human rights, as is so piously proclaimed in the letter in Trouw. Their real alliance, it becomes ever more evident, lies with the continuation of business as usual in times of – and in the service of – genocide.

And so, nine months into a horrifying textbook case of genocide on the Palestinian people – itself an intensification of the 75-years old, ongoing nakba – it is clear what the members of our executive boards will have to tell their children and grandchildren when they ask what they were doing when a genocide was unfolding. The answer, based on the rectors’ letter, is that they failed to act, failed to take responsibility, and failed to make the tiniest of difference in the lives of millions of Palestinians.

History teaches us lessons. How do we judge rectors who, in the South African anti-apartheid struggles in the 1980s, continued to work with criminals pending political directives to do otherwise, and called it… academic freedom?

rol-Erasmus Universiteit University-EUR-internationaal conflict-oorlog-war-discussie-discussion-2.2024_Francesca Mora

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