UMIST Lecturer Boycotts Isreali Academics

From the archive (legacy material)

Chris West and Daniel Sacker | Student Direct | 30 September 2002

Professor Mona Baker, a UMIST academic, made headlines over the summer when she fired Dr Miriam Schlesinger and Professor Gideon Toury, two Israeli academics on the editorial boards of two linguistics journals she edited, citing as her reason a worldwide petition criticising Israel's treatment of Palestinians and urging non-cooperation with Israeli universities. Chris West and Daniel Sacker discuss whether this action was justified.... A UMIST lecturer, Mona Baker, found herself at the centre of a great deal of media coverage, in the most part very negative, this summer when she decided to remove two Israeli-based academics from a journal she publishes herself. Having signed up to Stephen Rose-authored letter advocating the boycott of Israeli academics, her actions were simply the fulfilment of the principles she had openly advocated. For UMIST, it was a difficult time, and the Registrar of the institution got himself into a difficult muddle answering challenging questions from interviewers on Radio Four's Today programme. For an academic institution like UMIST, it is a very difficult issue to wrestle with. Contained within its founding documents, and in the government legislation that applies to it and with which it must comply, are provisions requiring the maintenance of the highest standards of freedom of expression. In any free and democratic society this is of the utmost importance in preserving the open exchange of ideas and opinions that form the foundations upon which those freedoms exist. Evident though that may be, it is worth stating in full to provide a context for the actions of Mrs Baker, and to illustrate how serious their implications are. Even though it is academics from overseas whom Ms Baker is taking action against, that freedom of ideology and belief has been suppressed is a crucial and unavoidable fact of the case. The institution has defended itself by pointing out that the journal itself is not UMIST sponsored, and that even though she is an academic on the UMIST staff, the journal is an entirely private affair. This is a fudge, and a very obvious one. By acting upon the boycott in a personal capacity, Mrs Baker cannot but affect the institution of which she is a staff member. Whether this is a problem or not for the institution depends in part upon your personal view of the situation in Israel and Palestine. But that academic institutions owe it to all those who work within them to be wholly impartial and apolitical is important and has left UMIST in a somewhat sticky position. That is a question beyond the scope of this commentary, but is one which does not, and cannot, ultimately swing the argument in one direction or the other. All those who work in academia, irrespective of their own personal opinions should seek to preserve freedoms of speech between academic institutions and countries. That Miriam Schlesinger's opinions are in large part allied with those who seek to censor her illustrates further the futility of the boycott.