Universities are built on the bedrock of academic freedom

07-31-2007

A month ago, I joined presidents and chancellors from a number of prominent U.S. universities, including sister CIC institutions University of Illinois, Urbana-Campaign; Pennsylvania State University; and Northwestern University, in endorsing a statement by Columbia University President Lee Bollinger decrying the United Kingdom’s University and College Union’s decision on May 30, 2007, to support the principle of a boycott against Israeli academics and academic institutions.

A few days ago I received word that more than 200 U.S. college and university presidents have now endorsed the statement. And on August 8, an ad purchased by the American Jewish Committee will appear in the New York Times to focus attention on this effort.

At issue is whether free intellectual exchange and scholarly activity should be casualties of political disagreements and whether the threat of withholding them is an appropriate political tool. We say no. In fact, we say that if the UK’s UCU proceeds with such a boycott, they should apply it to our universities, as well, because we stand in solidarity with those scholars who would be punished.

This nation’s great universities were built on the bedrock of academic freedom. They have been a source of inspiration, guidance, and leadership to countless universities around the world. In turn, U.S. academies have received much in knowledge, new ideas, and cultural understanding through interactions in diverse settings around the globe.

With its core values of quality, connectivity, and inclusion and its commitment to a world-grant mission, Michigan State University stands firmly behind the notion that a university may best bring about positive change in the world not by building walls and holding itself apart, but by engaging.

When MSU offers educational programs, conducts research, or enhances quality of life through outreach in a nation, whether it be in Malawi, Burundi, Dubai, China, or Guatemala, our actions neither support nor reject the current political reality of that nation, although many of us may indeed have reservations about some of that nation’s policies and activities.

This does not represent a contradiction. It means simply that while we are keenly aware of political landscapes—and very careful in our analysis of safety and security—our focus is educational and intellectual.

It means that MSU embraces a full spectrum of experiences, viewpoints, and intellectual approaches because it enriches the conversation, and a rich conversation challenges everyone to grow and to think differently. It means that we strive to make connections, to build bridges that expand understanding and provide the greatest hope for helping all of us, throughout the world, address the most pressing problems today and tomorrow.

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