June 22, 2007 — Two recent statements (the first, an expression of concern by President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University, and the second an opinion article by Thomas Friedman in Sunday’s New York Times) draw attention to an effort by a newly formed British membership organization that styles itself Britain’s University and College Union to promote a “boycott” of Israel’s universities. From information on its web sites, this organization appears to exist as the result of a merger between two labor unions. It is not clear from the web information why this group is allowing its name to be used to promote bigotry and hatred, but in any event the call for a boycott or a quarantine is in every sense unacceptable.
President Bollinger’s statement, accessible on the web at http://www.columbia.edu/cu/news/07/06/boycott.html, seems to me to be complete and reasonable in condemning what is by any assessment a coldly political effort to stifle academic or scholarly communications among major international universities. I agree with it, and I urge all to read it. A boycott of this kind is as ominous in its own way as the recurrent efforts to stifle learning that marked the conduct of the most vicious political movements and governments of the 20th century.
Open inquiry and exchange of ideas, the values that the UCU would suppress in universities, are fundamental to the values of the University of Virginia. For this reason, faculty members have asked me to issue this statement joining President Bollinger and Professor Friedman in condemning the UCU’s position for its hostility to what President Bollinger calls “the fundamental values of the academy.” Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia. Two of his statements about his intentions for his university will perhaps explain why the UCU’s position is particularly repugnant here. In 1820, in a letter to William Roscoe about his plans for a university in Virginia, Jefferson wrote that “this institution will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
In the absence of this illimitable freedom to follow truth wherever it may lead and without the open forum of ideas in which reason is free to combat error, universities and this University lose their unique capacity to serve the public good. The UCU’s position is shameful and unacceptable. No university worthy of the name can participate in a boycott or quarantine of knowledge, ideas, and open discourse.