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21 June 2024

Student Life
& Society

Ethics committees investigate ties to Israel

Various universities are setting up committees to investigate the ties to Israel. What do they do? And who’s on them? “The committee itself shouldn’t become a battlefield”, says Ruard Ganzevoort, intended chair of the Rotterdam committee.

Students and staff keep calling on universities to cut the ties to Israeli institutions. In Delft, Pro-Palestinian protesters erected a tent camp last week and in Nijmegen, a university building was occupied (and then cleared out) last Monday.

So far, universities have done little to nothing to meet the demands. What the universities of Leiden, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Rotterdam and Tilburg (and possibly others) are doing, is setting up committees that are to investigate the controversial collaborations.

And no, that’s not a delaying tactic, says Professor Ruard Ganzevoort. “Most anything can be viewed as a delaying tactic, but I think universities are sincerely looking to answer the question of how to handle those partnerships in a sensible way.”

Ganzevoort, who was a senator for GroenLinks until last year, is the dean of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, which is part of Erasmus University Rotterdam. On behalf of that university, he will lead the committee on sensitive partnerships. His first goal: to put a ‘framework’ into writing.

Why aren’t you looking at a concrete collaboration right away?
“We first want to know what criteria a partnership must fulfil. Erasmus University wishes to have a positive impact on society. This raises the question: can you collaborate with a certain institution to this end? But also: what’s the importance of this collaboration to the field?”

But wasn’t this committee set up because of the war in Gaza?
“That did accelerate things, but it could’ve been another issue as well. Such a framework would also have come in handy when we got questions about collaborating with the fossil industry or when Russa invaded Ukraine. And these kinds of issues will come up much more often, because geopolitical complexity is just increasing for the moment.”

How does a committee like that function: are the meetings public or are you weighing up all of the arguments behind closed doors?
“I would prefer to function as transparently as possible, but I can’t really say yet. I myself advocate openness wherever possible.”

Is such a committee intended to put a stop to the debate? As in: the committee has had its say, now it’s done?
“On the contrary, as an academic community we have and will continue to have an important role in these kinds of major societal issues. We can clarify them, ask critical questions, analyse what’s happening. Some scientists feel like that’s enough and that’s a legitimate stance. But there’s also room for academics who want to take up more of a position based on their social engagement, realising that knowledge is also always a form of power. The committee is merely intended to help weigh up the arguments as diligently as possible.”

And will the occupations end then? Will this reduce the polarisation?
“No, that’s not something this committee can achieve. Erasmus University wants to do three things: facilitate dialogue, investigate sensitive partnerships and look into doing something constructive for students and scientists in Gaza. After all, the entire academic structure in Gaza has been obliterated. A committee definitely isn’t the only answer to the polarisation.”

Is there enough debate within education institutions?
“No, I don’t think it’s enough, but let’s be fair: it’s a very difficult matter. Every attempt to have a conversation is almost immediately under pressure and is quick to get out of hand because of that same polarisation.”

So you will first create a framework and then start thinking about Gaza. Approximately how long will this take, you think?
“This is urgent now, we can’t wait much longer. I would love to be more specific and say we will finish the framework by the end of the week, but that’s a promise I might not be able to keep. And we also have to be diligent.”

Is cutting the ties compatible with academic freedom and openness in science?
“That’s precisely one of the things we have to consider. What I can say, is that many of those freedoms are collective freedoms, which apply more to an institute than to an individual scientist. In the end, exchange relationships are organised by an institute. This is not to say that they are entirely separate from the individual, but it does mean there’s also a collective responsibility.”

“You also have to distinguish between research and education. A student exchange is essentially different from a discussion on knowledge security: what do you do when another country directly uses our knowledge to make weapons? Do we legitimise that as an institute? And what does it mean to students or to a field if we terminate the collaboration? You can disagree with what’s happening in a country, but that may mean two things: you either continue the collaboration or terminate it. So it all depends on the circumstances.”

Who are on your committee? Does it include students?
“No, no students. The committee is composed of ‘academic experts’, who gather information from as many sources as possible. The committee focuses on weighing up arguments. We want to take account of as many different visions and lines of reasoning as possible, but the committee itself shouldn’t turn into a battlefield.”

Why have they asked you?
“Tasks like these are always divided up amongst the deans. Perhaps it was a factor that I’m dean of the International Institute of Social Studies, which deals with many societal issues. I also acquired a great deal of experience in the Senate on political issues and the sometimes complicated international relations.”

Translation: Taalcentrum-VU

“A committee definitely isn’t the only answer to the polarisation”


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