Scholars Should Build Bridges, Not Barriers

By Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick
As submitted; published in the The Star Ledger July 19, 2007

A British union of college professors is considering a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a means of protesting Israel's policies. In recent weeks, a growing chorus of university presidents has voiced strong opposition to the proposed boycott, finding the idea, in Columbia President Lee Bollinger's words, "utterly antithetical to the fundamental values of the academy, where we will not hold intellectual exchange hostage to the political disagreements of the moment."

Let me add my voice to those opposing a boycott. No matter how one feels about the policies of Israel or for that matter any nation, prohibiting contact with academics in that country is exactly the wrong thing to do. Any intrusion on the free flow of information and academic exchange to serve a political agenda is a violation of the principles we hold as institutions of higher learning. You will only resolve differences by communication and by enlarging interaction and mutual understanding.

We see a stirring example of that at Rutgers, where students have established a Middle East Coexistence House on campus. Eleven female students—Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, and agnostic—lived and studied side-by-side in a residence hall on the Rutgers campus this past year. Issues were discussed and often debated, but within an atmosphere of respect and tolerance, and a study showed that their views on Middle East issues moved toward the center as the year progressed. Their experience did more to enhance respect and mutual understanding than any kind of segregation or prohibition ever could. In fact, their model is being replicated at the International Christian University in Tokyo with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean students.

I do not dispute the British union's interest in making a statement to condemn a nation's policies. But the proposed boycott is the wrong statement to make. It denies opportunity to academics working in completely nonpolitical fields and cuts off the ability to exchange information, collaborate, and interact. Ironically, it is these very exchanges that often provide the answers to some of the difficulties that create global conflict.

This issue is not about Israel. The principles would be the same regardless of the nation in question. As Dr. Bollinger wrote, "We embrace scholars from many countries regardless of divergent views on their governments' policies." There are legitimate and appropriate means of expressing opposition and indeed a moral imperative to act on one's beliefs regarding human rights and national policies. Academic freedom and the open exchange of ideas and information, however, are essential to our advancement as nations and as a global community and must not be compromised or hindered in the name of justice. Instead, as we seek a better world, we must do all we can to keep open the lines of communication between academics in every nation.