Harvard university has adopted a policy of institutional neutrality on commenting on events which do not relate to its core mission. Alan Garber, Harvard’s interim president, and the Harvard Corporation, the university’s highest governing body, have accepted  the recommendations of a recently published report on such matters from its Institutional Voice Working Group (IVWG).

The IVWG’s work is one of the consequences of the trouble Harvard found itself in as a result of its reaction to Hamas’s 7 October atrocities. Three days after the pogrom the then President Claudine Gay did issue a statement condemning Hamas’s actions. However, it came significantly after 35 Harvard student groups issued declarations blaming Israel for the massacre. Her silence led some to conclude  she agreed with those condemnatory statements.

There is substantial evidence that her mishandling of events and her disastrous testimony before Congress on 5 December has caused Harvard reputational damage. The university struggled to find an eminent speaker to give its commencement day address because those approached did not want to be associated with the institution. Eventually it found Maria Ressa, a Nobel-prize winning investigative journalist, but she then made remarks many conceived as anti-Semitic. Interim President Garber has also privately admitted to staff  that Harvard faces a hostile fundraising environment.

However, the principle of institutional neutrality goes beyond the challenges facing Harvard. It features in many arguments on divestment from Israel. Vanderbilt University gave it as a reason to refuse a demand from its students to divest. Interestingly it also pointed to institutional neutrality as a justification for refusing to endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism. The University of Chicago has done likewise (it did not even divest from South Africa in the 1980s).

In fact attempts by anti-Israel protesters to force American universities to divest from and sever links with Israel have been almost entirely unsuccessful. Harvard repeatedly said  it would not divest even before the release of the statement on institutional neutrality. New York University has also rejected demands to cut ties with Israel as has Columbia  and the University of California, Los Angeles, Brown, Northwestern and Rutgers have also refused, though they have given students a place on investment committees and agreed to a dialogue on the matter. The University of Pennsylvania’s anti-Semitism task force report recommends the university reiterate its opposition to a boycott and divestment.

In its full-blown form institutional neutrality certainly would preclude any boycott of Israeli academic institutions and divestment from Israeli companies. If a university’s purpose is only to pursue knowledge then it is obliged to invest its endowments to gain maximum financial benefit. That is despite the fact that many will feel uncomfortable with this stance. 

The Harvard working group did question whether research can be entirely separated from questions of social justice. It suggested what it calls principled neutrality should be considered. The problem with this approach is that it is hard to define what it would look like in practice. It could mean setting neutrality aside in a given situation because of certain principles considered higher. However, institutions which adapt this approach will inevitably get into the same trouble that universities got into when issuing public statements on external events. They will be accused of bias and prejudice for maintaining neutrality in some situations and not in others.

There are pragmatic factors beyond a backlash from Jewish donors which would prevent American universities from boycotting or divesting from Israel. Anti-boycott legislation which makes those who divested liable to sanction exists in many states. With many universities being investigated for anti-Semitism, divestment and a boycott would also be politically inept to say the least. However, there is a precedent for universities boycotting countries, in particular South Africa during the apartheid years. So protesters demanding a boycott will ultimately have to be out-argued morally.

One argument is that it would simply be an act of serious self-harm to disengage from a research sector as distinguished as Israel’s. The latest report from the Centre for World University Rankings placed most of Israeli research universities in the top 3% of global insitutions. The UK Innovation and Science Network published a snapshot of the Israeli research sector, updated in March 2024 which points out that Israel spends a higher percentage of its GDP on research and development than any other country. It also notes that it has produced the highest number of Nobel laureates per head in chemistry and economics. This tendency to win the highest academic awards continued this year when Haim Sompolinsky, affiliated with both the Hebrew University and Harvard,  won the Brain Prize, the most distinguished award in his field of neuroscience. To damage the Israeli research and development sector is to harm the potential beneficiaries of that research.

Then there is the issue of academic freedom. Researchers and academics should be free to follow their own conscience when deciding the countries and institutions with which to engage. That is as long as the institutions they engage with are conducting ethical research. It must be admitted that full-blown academic freedom would allow those who choose to boycott Israel to do so. However, such decisions should be a matter of individual conscience rather than institutional policy.

Another claim is that a boycott would mean punishing the innocent with the guilty. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the current conflict or what is happening on the West Bank, Israeli academics and researchers should not be held responsible. 

A boycott would also be hypocritical when one considers universities’ links to China and other Middle Eastern regimes with notoriously bad human rights records. Applying a double standard whereby they continue to engage with such countries but then boycott Israel is anti-Semitic as it applies different standards to the Jewish state. Admittedly if Israel was ultimately deemed to be practicing apartheid on the West Bank it could mean those involved would be liable to a boycott. However, even then this should not extend to a boycott of Israel as a whole.

Finally, it could be argued that universities receiving government funding should be looking to obtain maximum results to justify receiving finance. In many fields this would mean engaging with Israel rather than making pointless political gestures.

There is no doubt that institutional neutrality in its absolute form is the strongest defence against divestment and boycotts. That is at least in those countries where divestment is not legally prohibited. However strong a moral case one can make against a boycott there is always the risk that university authorities will be worn down by constant protests. That may tempt them to appease protesters by acceding to their demands to divest. Over and above any concerns about boycotts of Israel or any other country, institutional neutrality might seem cold-blooded to some. However, it is the best way of keeping universities focused on their core mission and limiting the politicisation of academic institutions.

Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.

PHOTO; "P_30 Cambridge - The Widener Library (1915) - Harvard University - Massachusetts" by CthulhuWho1 (Will Hart) is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The aftermath of the 7 October Hamas pogrom in Israel has made the rethinking of anti-Semitism a more urgent task than ever. Both the extent and character of anti-Semitism is changing. Tragically the open expression of anti-Semitic views is once again becoming respectable. It has also become clearer than ever that anti-Semitism is no longer largely confined to the far right. Woke anti-Semitism and Islamism have also become significant forces.

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