A campus controversy

Over in France, there’s a controversy brewing over a conference on Israel that was going to be held at Paris-8 next week. It’s been covered in a range of newspapers. The gist is that the conference, subtitled “Israel, an apartheid state?”, had been authorized to be held on campus, but when a major French Jewish organization expressed opposition, the campus administration withdrew its authorization. Here’s a quick translation of the campus president’s communique explaining his decision:

To the university community,

The University of Paris-8 was recently asked to give its authorization for a conference on its campus entitled, “From new sociological, historical and legal approaches to the call for an international boycott: Israel, an apartheid state?”, planned for this February 27-28.

Initially, the President of the University did give an authorization to the conference organizers, on the condition that a certain number of obligations be scrupulously observed. These involved, on one hand, an absolute respect for the principles of academic neutrality and secularism [laïcité], and on the other hand, the removal of the university’s logos and visuals, since the university is not the organizer of this conference.

In giving this authorization, the President was mindful—as in every case when he is asked to approve public events—at once of the rights of freedom of speech and of assembly for campus users, of the maintenance of public order on the premises, of the institution’s intellectual and scientific independence, and of the principle of neutrality in public service vis-à-vis the diversity of public opinion.

However, today it appears that respecting these conditions will not be enough to guarantee the maintenance either of public order on the premises, or of the institution’s scientific or intellectual independence, given that the pluralism of scientific approaches, the pluralism of critical and divergent analyses, must be regarded as intangible academic obligations.

Indeed, the presentation of this “conference” as “academic,” along with the repeated presence of “Paris 8” on the conference publicity, could be, in themselves, of such a nature as to create confusions that may infringe on the requirement to keep the university free of any political or ideological grasp. The reactions elicited by the conference, which have begun to compromise the university itself, reveal that confusion has set in, and that there is a real risk to the principle of neutrality of public services in research and higher education.

The theme of the conference, the nature of the planned presentations, as well as of the contributors’ titles, strongly polemical in nature, have caused strong reactions that foreshadow a serious risk of disturbances in public order, and of counter-protests that the university is obliged to prevent.

In such circumstances, the President of the University has decided to withdraw the previously given authorization.

The President’s Office has contacted the organizers to propose that on-campus space should be allocated for a day of public debates, in the framework of a diversity of views.

Concerning the organization of the conference on February 27 and 28th, it is decided that the President’s Office will offer the university’s services in locating other premises off-campus where the conference can be held.

-The university administration

This decision has prompted a fair amount of outrage from faculty (including American intellectuals like Judith Butler and Noam Chomsky), who, naturally, invoked the same principles of academic freedom (“intellectual and scientific independence”) that the campus president (Pascal Binczak) had invoked in defending his change of views. I think it’s quite interesting that the principle of academic freedom can equally be invoked to license or to deny campus space for controversial events — the proponents of an event can argue that political interference shouldn’t be allowed to censor campus events; the opponents can argue that politically charged topics are insufficiently academic to deserve campus space. At the level of principle, I think this is more of a real dilemma than most parties want to acknowledge. Not many people today want to live in a static university where ancient, let’s say Aristotelian, intellectual doctrines are the only ones allowed to be presented on campus. But most campuses these days also want to set limits on acceptable speech. And it’s not clear to me that there is a principled way to set such limits on a purely intellectual basis.

Ultimately the relevant “principle” seems most often to be “what’s currently acceptable given the social mores of the moment” or “what some plurality of current scholars think is acceptable,” but given that both of these are historically contingent and variable reference points, I’m not sure they are extremely defensible. It seems to me it would be much more honest if administrators admitted that the main principle, in moments like this one, was just to save face or to avert conflict, was in short a principle of sheer expediency. My sense is that large bureaucracies make decisions for such reasons of expediency much more than they can possibly admit in public.