An event scheduled for Nov. 12 on the UMass Amherst campus focusing on the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” movement (BDS) is being presented by a private foundation – not by the university. This private foundation has, as many non-UMass organizations regularly do, rented space on campus to host the upcoming event, which is being billed as a panel discussion on “The Attack on BDS and American Democracy.”
Despite our concerns regarding this particular gathering, based on its title and past statements by its panelists, as a public institution UMass is bound by the First Amendment to the Constitution to apply a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations. For this reason, and in adherence to the principles of academic freedom, the university will take no steps to inhibit this event.
However, while UMass Amherst is firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom, the University remains firmly opposed to BDS and to academic boycotts of any kind. Academic boycotts are antithetical to academic freedom and it is ironic that individuals, who rely upon that very freedom to make their case, should advocate for a movement, in BDS, that seeks to suppress it.
It is troubling that such a one-dimensional, polarizing event should take place on our campus. A panel discussion where only one perspective is shared does little to increase the understanding of such a complex topic like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, because the BDS position in general fails to acknowledge the humanity on the Israeli side of the conflict and is considered by many as anti-Semitic, the upcoming event could very well alienate many of our Jewish students and other members of our campus community.
Clearly, the divisions among Palestinians and Israelis represent one of the intractable problems of our times, and we acknowledge the suffering that exists on all sides. But if we are going to truly build a community of dignity and respect, we must step outside our own echo-chambers and encourage the free exchange of ideas. And while I wholeheartedly support freedom of speech for all, I also maintain that, as chancellor, I have a duty to be a voice for our campus’s values. And one of those values, which I think is critically important in ensuring a safe and welcoming living-learning community, is inclusion.
We remain committed to ensuring an inclusive campus that will continue to prioritize the safety and security of all students. When outside organizations come onto our campus and give a high-profile platform for one-sided and divisive political positions that some view as deeply offensive, they are saying to valued members of our community that they don’t belong. This is the antithesis of our commitment to inclusion, and we will not hesitate to speak out against efforts to divide our campus community.
Kumble Subbaswamy is the Chancellor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.