On August 8, 2007, the names of a number of presidents of U.S. colleges and universities appeared in an advertisement that was placed in the New York Times by the American Jewish Congress (AJC). The text of the ad was a statement by Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, stating, in part, that he was " ... profoundly disturbed by the recent vote by Britain's new University and College Union (UCU) to advance a boycott against Israeli academic institutions." You can access the full statement below.
Shortly thereafter I received a few telephone calls and letters from parents, alumni, and faculty expressing surprise and disappointment that Ithaca College was not on the list of presidents in the ad. These individuals were very upset that the UCU -- a union representing academics across Great Britain -- had "imposed a boycott" on Israeli academic institutions in response to such a call from a number of Palestinian organizations that endorse the "Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel."
I was unaware of the opportunity to participate in signing the statement. After I saw the ad, I went to the AJC website and read the text of organization's August 8, 2007, message to members. I decided that this important matter warranted my attention, and I began to read all the primary sources that I could find. I've listed a number of these below as well.
I spent significant time over the course of more than a week educating myself on the issue, talking with colleagues and with a member of the AJC staff. What I learned was that the UCU had not imposed or adopted a boycott. Rather the UCU, on May 30, 2007, voted to engage in an organized series of debates among its members about the prospect of such a boycott. The executive committee of the UCU will meet in November 2007 to consider the results of those debates.
After all my research and discussion, I elected to communicate directly with the University and College Union about the matter and sent a letter to Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU (see below). I thought this was a more effective course of action than adding Ithaca College's name to a statement on an issue that has been misunderstood/misinterpreted by many readers. I have also communicated my decision directly to the AJC and to President Bollinger. I have since received a reply from Sally Hunt in which she states, " ... as I have said many times now, I do not believe an academic boycott of Israel is supported by UCU's membership. Nor do I believe that it is an issue that members want us to prioritise over and above other issues."
The academy was founded on the principles of free and open discourse, and vigorous debate. I deplore the notion that a group of academics would ever act to impose a boycott on colleagues in another country. I believe instead that we must all work together to use our knowledge and influence to advance the common good. Should the UCU vote for a boycott as its course of action, I will then seek to engage in dialogue with representatives of appropriate Ithaca College constituencies to determine how best we might respond, as an institution, to such an unfortunate decision.
Peggy R. Williams
President, Ithaca College
September 17, 2007
Letter from Peggy R. Williams to UCU Executive Director Sally Hunt:
TO: Ms. Sally Hunt, General Secretary
University and College Union
FROM: Dr. Peggy R. Williams, President
SUBJECT: Resolution 30
It has come to my attention, from a number of sources, that the British University and College Union (UCU) has called for the advancement of discussion and debate regarding the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. I understand that your executive committee will vote on this in November.
While I have decided not to add our institution's name at this time to the growing list of U.S. colleges and universities publicly condemning your action, I do want to register my strong concern. I implore you to explore and debate this issue from multiple perspectives before determining a course of action. In my opinion, this is the role and the responsibility of members of the academy. Should the UCU determine that a boycott is the only course of action I will reassess my decision at that time.
Lee Bollinger's statement
The American Jewish Committee
The New York Times Ad
AJC Boycott Press Release
Information about the UCUís resolutions
President of Harvard's statement on the boycott issue