Provost’s update: Balancing rights and responsibilities on campus in a difficult time

michael_spence_web_ready_800x500.jpg
michael_spence_web_ready_­800x500.jpg
A message from the Provost to all’UCL staff and students.

Every member of our community will be aware of the local and international impact of the Israel - Gaza crisis. No-one could fail to be shaken by human suffering on this scale. It is also hard to avoid the media coverage of troubling scenes on campuses in the US and elsewhere: mass protests, which have escalated into violence in places, resulting in police involvement.

In times of intense conflict, competing claims and assumptions about the responsibilities of a university and its leadership are usually in play. 

It goes without saying that our first responsibility must be to members of our staff and student community who are affected by a conflict, to ensure that they have all the wellbeing and other support that they need and that we are able to provide. We must remember that we have staff and students who have been directly affected by the Israel - Gaza crisis on both sides. 

But what of our wider responsibilities? Does a university have a responsibility to adopt an institutional adjudication of the rights and wrongs of this or any other conflict? Does refraining from doing so demonstrate a callous indifference to such suffering? And what is the responsibility of the university when views about a conflict are being expressed that are deeply held by some and experienced as hurtful and discriminatory by others?

Universities have always been places of ferment in times of historical change and conflict. They are places in which the passionate exchange of ideas is core, places that foster debate. Academic freedom and freedom of speech are central. Staff and students want to see ideas translated into action, and activism has long been a part of campus life.

In times of conflict, more than ever, this entails the need to create an environment in which debate can be free, but also open to participation by all staff and students, and safe for scholarly activity. That is not always easy to do. I have argued in a previous message that support for academic freedom and freedom of debate requires that a university not adopt an institutional position in relation to any given issue, including an issue of armed conflict. Though this is not always an easy or a comfortable line to hold, I believe that it is crucial to maintaining our foundational role as a community committed to pluralism, to the notion that people with very different understandings of the world, including those that some may find repugnant, can live together and even attempt to understand one another. Interesting questions have been raised as to whether this position means that we ought not to have formal institutional relationships with universities in countries currently involved in military action.

On that issue, I believe that staff and students ought to be able, as part of their academic freedom, to collaborate with scholars in any country with which it is permissible to do so under UK law and that the university ought to continue to encourage international intellectual exchange.

But the greater challenge, especially now, is to know what it means practically to create an environment in which debate can be free, but also an environment that is open to all staff and students and safe for scholarly activity.

On the one hand, this must mean that our campus is open to protest as well as to debate. We must take all reasonable steps to ensure that protests within the law by members of our community can take place safely, even when this may cause distress or concern for others who share different backgrounds, beliefs or views. It is for this reason that we have allowed protests, rallies and events to take place, such as the one that took place last Friday. We have also had a recent occupation of the Jeremy Bentham room. Although disruptive to the business of the university, and unsettling and upsetting for some members of our community, that disruption was manageable and in line with our Code of Conduct on free speech. We are also aware that a small protest with tents has just gone up in the quad. We hope and expect this to be small and peaceful.

On the other hand, there are limits to what we can allow flowing from our duties to encourage participation by all, and to give primacy to scholarly activity. We cannot facilitate protest that descends into hate speech, harassment or bullying. I have been horrified by some of the personal experiences of anti-semitism and Islamophobia that are being reported by members of our university. I strongly encourage those who need it to reach to our student support services, or to their line managers, to ensure that they are receiving the support that they need. I also urge anyone who feels that they have encountered speech or behaviour that they believe goes beyond legitimate discourse to use our Report + Support channels to ensure we can take any necessary action.

Similarly, although the university must be a place that can accommodate lawful protest by staff and students, and that must be open to the external communities that we serve, we are aware that there are external individuals and organisations who are seeking to exploit the university’s duty to allow freedom of expression, to disrupt the university’s business in the name of their cause. We cannot allow something that causes significant disruption to the running of the university and interferes with our primary purpose as a place of learning and research.

This is why, at a time when tensions are running high on university campuses across the world, we are currently asking our staff and students to show their ID cards at the gate as a precautionary measure, and for academic visitors to do the same. This is particularly important at a time when we need to support those preparing for, or sitting exams on campus.

Additionally, I urge everyone to show compassion and understanding towards one another and to be mindful of the need to live and work together. As we navigate these challenging times, let’s continue the dialogue about what it means to remain true to our foundational commitments to pluralism and to freedom of speech, to diversity and to engagement across those issues that divide us. And let us individually support the efforts of those who seek to bring peace everywhere. As usual, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how these conversations should be handled and would encourage you to write to me at  president.provost@ucl.ac.uk.

  • University College London, Gower Street, London, WC1E 6BT (0) 20 7679 2000