Academic freedom demands academic balance
Sir, – Mike Jennings (January 26th), general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, has come out strongly against University College Cork’s decision to indefinitely postpone – on safety and security grounds – the proposed March conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism”.
The essence of Mr Jennings’s argument is that “academic freedom is a core value of any university in the world worthy of the title. We in Ireland can be proud of the fact we are one of the few countries that has enshrined the right to academic freedom in our laws (the Universities Act 1997)”.
As a scholar, I share and support these principles.
However, academic freedom does not entitle anyone in the university system to promote an agenda which contains, entertains or promotes – at even a subliminal level – a perception of animosity or contempt towards any social, national or ethnic group.
Therefore, while I support the principle that academic freedom facilitates scholars to pursue knowledge from even the most controversial of sources, I would also argue this freedom is not without responsibility.
This duty of care has to be conducted in a forum that observes the rule of law, respects the rights and sensibilities of minorities and, most importantly of all, does not in any way create a climate of uncertainty and/or fear, as the proposed UCC conference clearly has done in elements of the Irish-Jewish community.
This uncertainty could only be allayed if there were a diverse speaking panel that included a cohort of scholars who hold an opposing ideological position to the conference organisers.
The argument has been put forward that the panel includes a number of prominent Israeli scholars. However, while this is true in terms of nationality, it is not true in terms of pro-Israeli argument.
Only when there is a truly representative conference panel which present papers that might enrage as much as engage can it be argued that academic freedom applies.True academic freedom includes the right of scholars to debate and discuss each other’s work, this cannot happen if academics from Israeli institutions are boycotted from participation simply because they are deemed by some to hold indefensible opinions. – Yours, etc,
Dr KEVIN McCARTHY,