Cambridge academics express “profound disquiet” at University’s treatment of peaceful student protestors
A group of sixty academics from Cambridge University have spoken out in dismay at the university’s handling of a peaceful protest in which more than one hundred students occupied the Law Faculty in solidarity with people suffering in the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.
Over the course of the six-day sit-in, the University threatened matriculation sanctions and legal action. It also endeavoured to prevent any food being brought into the building for the occupiers.
In a letter to Vice Chancellor Alison Richard, academics express their support for the “initiative taken by Cambridge University students in asking this University to respond to the recent humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza”. They call the occupation “a peaceful, dignified and humanitarian show of constructive solidarity with suffering civilians, particularly their fellow students in Palestine” and say the students have attempted to “take humanitarian and educational principles beyond the classroom” in a commendable display of the “interrogative and transformative attitude” that they are encouraged to develop through their studies at university.
February 6, 2009
Dear Professor Richard,
We are writing to express our continued support for the initiative taken by Cambridge University students in asking this University to respond to the recent humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, Palestine and to contribute to the reconstruction of the educational infrastructure there. Their ‘occupation’ at the Law Faculty was a peaceful, dignified and humanitarian show of constructive solidarity with suffering civilians, particularly their fellow students in Palestine. As their teachers, we are proud that Cambridge students demonstrated what your own representatives described as 'moral courage' in the face of some personal risk.
We must, therefore, express our profound disquiet at the measures employed by the administration to bring a forcible end to their action. It does not befit an institution of this standing to deploy tactics such as food deprivation and threatening matriculation sanctions and legal action. We are heartened that so many of our academic colleagues came out in support of the students. They appreciate that a clear distinction is to be made between criminal activity and the exercise of the right to non-violent protest; we must insist that University and college administrators recognise this difference.
We are, further, dismayed that the administration failed to negotiate substantially with the students' well-articulated demands, particularly given the far more constructive recent responses from institutions such as the University of Sussex and King’s College London. These have included offers of material support to educational institutions in Palestine, such as books, laptops and scholarships. (We note that similar scholarships were created in Cambridge for students from countries such as apartheid South Africa, and continue to be offered). Such constructive actions will help raise a generation of Palestinians who can use their education towards bringing about an end to the cycle of violence in that region. Our university can make no more enlightened or humanitarian contribution to the appalling suffering created by this conflict.
We also strongly agree that an educational institution should not be involved with or benefit from the arms trade which has brought so much suffering around the world, and therefore support students' calls for disinvestment from this industry. We insist on greater transparency and accountability in the University's investments and urge you to move this institution towards a federally binding and meaningful ethical investment policy.
As teachers, we strive to foster in our students an interrogative and transformative attitude towards the world. The Gaza initiatives have attempted to take humanitarian and educational principles beyond the classroom. These students, whose brightness we value and whom we rightly regard as the leaders of the future, should not be treated as naive children when their initiatives do not suit our own political positions or administrative convenience. It is our hope that in dealing with these and all students who challenge the status quo in manifest pursuit of justice and intellectual freedom, the administration will engage more seriously and respectfully than it has during this episode.
We believe that intellectual communities have a responsibility to lead humane debate and global transformation and are, therefore, concerned that democratic civic discourse has been seriously undermined by the University's refusal to engage in meaningful dialogue with its own students.
We urge the administration to look on this episode as an opportunity to remind itself and the university community of its fundamental organizing principles which, according to its own mission statement, include a mandate ‘to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning, and research at the highest international levels of excellence’. Our students have sought to remind us of a point of principled self-interest: our university – once the nursery of Milton, Darwin and Newton – must strive vigorously and indefatigably to defend the exercise of intellectual freedom wherever it is being threatened. Should we fail our students in this, we will fail ourselves much more grievously, for we risk not merely complacency, not simply complicity, but the careless oblivion of our own cherished, animating ideals. It is surely time to make real our commitment to Cambridge University’s stated ‘core values’ and ‘educational aspirations’: 'freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination' and 'the encouragement of a questioning spirit.'
Dr Maha Abdelrahman, Development Studies Committee
Dr Lori Allen, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Dr Houshang Ardavan, Institute of Astronomy and Murray Edwards College
Dr Tarak Barkawi, POLIS
Dr Barbara Bodenhorn, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology and Pembroke College
Dr Christopher Burlinson, Faculty of English and Jesus College
Dr Alison Carrol, Murray Edwards College
Mr Tim Cribb, Churchill College
Dr David Clifford, Faculty of English and Homerton College
Dr Devon Curtis, POLIS and Emmanuel College
Dr Susan Daruvala, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Trinity College
Dr Greg Davis, Department of Experimental Psychology and Murray Edwards College
Dr Anuj Dawar, Computer Laboratory and Robinson College
Dr Cristina Devecchi, Homerton College
Dr Richard Drayton, Faculty of History and Corpus Christi College
Dr Paola Filippucci, Murray Edwards College
Dr Sinead Garrigan-Mattar, Faculty of English and Girton College
Professor Heather Glen, Faculty of English and Murray Edwards College
Dr Priyamvada Gopal, Faculty of English and Churchill College
Dr Mina Gorji, Faculty of English
Dr John Harvey, Faculty of English and Emmanuel College
Dr Ed Holberton, Faculty of English and St John’s College
Dr Michael Hrebeniak, Faculty of English and Wolfson College
Dr Khaled Hroub, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Dr Humeira Iqtidar, Centre of South Asian Studies and King's College
Dr Matthew Jones, Judge Business School
Dr Makram Khoury-Machool, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies
Dr Eivind Kahrs, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Queens’ College
Dr Kate Kenny, Judge Business School
Dr Mary Laven, Faculty of History and Jesus College
Dr Sian Lazar, Department of Social Anthropology
Dr Marta de Magalhães, Centre of Latin American Studies and Wolfson College
Dr Robert MacFarlane, Faculty of English and Emmanuel College
Dr Leo Mellor, Faculty of English and Murray Edwards College
Dr Rod Mengham, Faculty of English and Jesus College
Dr Subha Mukherji, Faculty of English
Dr Kamal Munir, Judge Business School
Dr Pervaiz Nazir, POLIS
Dr Fred Parker, Faculty of English and Clare College
Dr Neil Pattison, Faculty of English and St John’s College
Dr Ian Patterson, Faculty of English and Queens’ College
Dr Evaleila Pesaran, Murray Edwards College
Professor Hashem Pesaran, Faculty of Economics and Trinity College
Professor Christopher Prendergast, King’s College
Mr. J. H. Prynne, Gonville and Caius College
Dr Alastair Reid, Faculty of History and Girton College
Dr Jason Scott-Warren, Faculty of English and Gonville and Caius College
Dr David Sneath, Department of Social Anthropology and Corpus Christi College
Dr Gagan Sood, Faculty of History and Wolfson College
Mrs Elsa Strietman, Department of German and Dutch, Murray Edwards College
Dr Julia Swindells, Faculty of English and Anglia Ruskin University
Dr Vincenzo Vergiani, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Wolfson College
Dr Christopher Warnes, Faculty of English and St John's College
Dr Lee Wilson, CRASSH
Dr Nicolette Zeeman, Faculty of English and King’s College
Andrew Zurcher, Faculty of English and Queens' College
Dr David Hillman, Faculty of English and King’s College
Professor Angela Leighton, Faculty of English and Trinity College
Dr Robin Boast, Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology
Dr Leo Mellor, Faculty of English and Murray Edwards College
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