Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The case of the academic boycott of Israel.

Questions of freedom of speech have been to the forefront in contemporary academic debate. Historically, universities have always provided space for critical thinking and engaged civil society activism. In recent years there has been much discussion about how neoliberalism in higher education has affected academic freedom and the expression of dissenting and controversial views. The conference examines these effects with particular reference to academic boycotts in general, and in particular the controversies surrounding the academic boycott of Israel.


Keynote speakers

Steven Salaita. Author of Uncivil Rites: Palestine and the Limits of Academic Freedom, Steven was denied a Professorship in University of Illinois due to his views on Israel/Palestine and will speak on “Freedom to boycott: BDS and the modern University”

Kathleen Lynch. Chair of Equality Studies, UCD, specialising in neoliberalism and educational policy and theory. Kathleen will speak on “Academic Freedom: New and old challenges”



The conference will take place from 11-12 September 2017 in Trinity College Dublin.

The conference does not propose to debate the pros and cons of the academic boycott of Israel but rather to make links and draw lessons about the role of the public university in fostering academic freedom, and the freedom to express critical, even if controversial views. It will include sessions on the neoliberal university, lawfare and free speech on campus, with particular reference to the academic boycott

The conference will be interdisciplinary, situated between law, the arts, social sciences and humanities and includes academics from Ireland and abroad with practical experiences of the issues surrounding academic freedom in higher education.

For the full programme:


Conference Description

There have been claims that austerity and the cuts in public funding for the higher education sector have led to universities responding by:

  • Changing university culture to emphasise training for the job market at the possible expense of broader educational goals
  • Hiring increasing numbers of temporary, adjunct and precarious academic staff
  • Placing greater emphasis on research funding from public, EU and private sources, leading to increasing pressure on academics to seek and compete for scarce financial resources
  • A greater reliance on managerialism, cost cutting and bureaucratic measures which put greater administrative pressure on academics

This response may result in stifling critical thinking, dissent and freedom of expression by academics and students and lead to self-censorship and curtailing expression on controversial topics. Today’s public university culture is shifting from one based on ‘the liberal university’ to one focused on a business model, the provision of training and resource management, all of which narrows the space for the exchange of ideas and for freedom of expression.

This has thrown into sharp relief a constant question for academics as to whether their role encompasses or precludes political activism – whether homo academicus should also be homo politicus. With growing global political polarisation, this question has returned to the spotlight with academics under fire for expressing political opinions in Turkey, the US and elsewhere.


The case of the academic boycott of Israel

Rather than examining these issues on either an abstract or an anecdotal level, the conference focuses on the hotly contested issue of academic boycott, as this offers a paradigmatic example of how controversial topics are dealt with by the contemporary university and of the effects of the neoliberalisation of the public university on academic freedom.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) was initiated in 2004 to contribute to the struggle for Palestinian freedom, justice and equality. It advocates for a boycott of Israeli academic and cultural institutions for their deep and persistent complicity in Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights – including academic freedom – that are stipulated in international law. Across the world, academics and students have responded to the Palestinian call for boycott by refusing to cooperate with Israeli higher education institutions on grounds of conscience. This stance has inevitably caused controversy in universities globally.

Since the academic boycott is a controversial topic, one would expect those who support the boycott to be challenged. However, the challenge rarely comes from within the world of ideas and is usually offered through a mixture of ‘lawfare’, bureaucratic strictures, threat to employment and disciplinary measures. In other words, the academic boycott of Israel is an arena in which disciplinarity – rather than the ideals of the liberal university – is brought to bear. While this is an unsatisfactory way of dealing with controversial topics, the question remains as to how university administrators and academics can best facilitate the free exchange of ideas in this arena. It is these questions which the conference addresses.

Conference organisers

The conference is hosted by the MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict in the Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin. Trinity was an early and important supporter of the academic boycott of Apartheid South Africa and remains well known for its liberal stance and openness towards diverse and dissenting voices.

Dr David Landy, MPhil in Race, Ethnicity, Conflict, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Ronit Lentin, Associate Professor (retired), Sociology, Trinity College Dublin

Dr Conor McCarthy, School of English, Maynooth University



Registration is €30 for waged and €15 for unwaged. Teas, coffees and sandwiches will be provided for attendees

To register click on the link:



TCD logo final

Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel

Trinity College Dublin 11-12 September 2017

All sessions in the JM Synge Lecture theatre, Arts Building, unless otherwise stated


Monday 11 September 2017

3.30-4.15        Registration and coffee
4.15                  Welcome
4.30-6.00        Roundtable    Robert Emmet Lecture Theatre, Arts Building

University governance and the possibility for discussing BDS. Comparative perspectives

(Contributers:  Paola Rivetti, School of Law and Government, Dublin City University / Mark LeVine, Department of History, University of California, Irvine / Kathleen Cavanaugh, NUI Galway) 

6.30-8          Keynote speaker 1

Steven Salaita, Independent scholar: Freedom to Boycott: BDS and the Modern University

8.30             Dinner


Tuesday 12 September 2017

9.30                  Introduction: Senator Ivana Bacik
09.45-11.15      The neoliberal university and freedom of speech

Whose university? Neoliberalism, counter-extremism and the academic boycott of Israel (Hilary Aked, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath)

Precarity in higher education and its implications for taking part in academic boycotts (Sinead Pembroke, TASC, Dublin)

Navigating BDS Activism on Campuses in Lebanon; Struggles and Challenges
(Tala Makhoul, American University of Beirut)


11.15-11.45      Coffee
11.45-1.00        Keynote speaker 2

Kathleen Lynch, Equality Studies, UCD: Academic Freedom: New and old challenges

1.00-2.00           Lunch
2.00-3.45           Intellectual praxis, lawfare and academic freedom

Protecting academic freedom through legal mobilization (Jeff Handmaker, International Institute of Social Studies, Erasmus University Rotterdam / Selma Rekik, Law Department, University of Maastricht)

Representations of the intellectual: Praxis, politics and solidarity (John Reynolds, Department of Law, Maynooth University)

‘Civil’ civility and ‘uncivil’ civility: On the social epistemology of academic freedom (Arianne Shahvisi, Brighton and Sussex Medical School)


3.45-4.15          Coffee
4.15-5.45        Parallel session I: Free speech on campus and its discontents   JM Synge Lecture Theatre, Arts Building

Academia and the case of Palestine: On academic responsibility and political engagement (Eleonora Roldán Mendivil, Social Sciences Department, University of Hamburg)

Between Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism: The limits of free speech on campus (Joanna Williams, independent academic and author, UK)

Free speech vs Freedom: Neoliberalism, the colonial university, and Palestinian liberation (C. Heike Schotten, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Boston)

Parallel session II: Academic freedom: comparative perspectives    Robert Emmet Lecture Theatre, Arts Building

Perspectives on academic boycott of Israel in Poland (Karolina Agnieszka Dobosz, Centre for Research in Social Communications, University of Lodz)

The PACBI: free speech, hate speech and protest (Nadia Silhi Chahin, University Carlos III of Madrid)

Striking a similar chord: Questioning the shrinking spaces of free speech, dissent in public universities in India in relation to Israeli academic institutions (Sounita Mukherjee, Centre for the Studies of Social Sciences, Calcutta)

6.00      Book launch – John Reynolds (2017) Empire, Emergency and International Law, Cambridge University Press.
National University of Ireland, 49 Merrion Square, Dublin 2

Launch by Kathleen Cavanaugh, The Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUIG


The conference is hosted by the MPhil in Race, Ethnicity and Conflict,  Department of Sociology, Trinity College Dublin.