Scholar pulls out of university talk amid fresh row over academic freedom

A Copenhangen-based scholar has pulled out of a book talk at Glasgow University amid claims the institution undermined his academic freedom.

Glasgow University is facing fresh claims it has undermined academic freedoms after it asked a scholar to provide details of the content of a talk ahead of the event. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr Somdeep Sen, Associate Professor in International Development Studies at Roskilde University, was due to speak this month on his new work, Decolonizing Palestine, but announced he would no longer be taking part.

His decision comes after the university asked him to share contents of his speech ahead of the event and to ensure his talk did not breach UK terror laws.

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The requests came after the university’s Jewish Society lodged a complaint about the talk, claiming it was antisemitic and posed a threat to safety of Jewish students. Protocols on managing speakers were then activated.

Dr Somdeep Sen, Associate Professor in International Development Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark, pulled out of his forthcoming talk although Glasgow University said it had not stopped him from speaking. PIC: Contributed.

Dr Sen, who has presented his book at a number of universities around the world without issue, claimed the university’s handling of his talk had been “extremely disappointing and alarming” and pulled out after questions about the handling of the situation went unanswered. He said claims his talk was antisemitic were made without basis and were potentially damaging to his reputation.

Dr Sen said: “It creates a chilling effect that discourages open scholarly discussion of the politics of Israel-Palestine and this will have consequences for the academic freedom on campus.

"As a leading UK research university and member of the prestigious Russell Group, the university's actions are all the more troubling, by setting an example for others to follow.”

Glasgow University said it had not stopped Dr Sen from speaking and that it supported academic freedom and equality across campus.

The British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) and the European International Studies Association has publicly supported Dr Sen and the Glasgow branch of the University College Union has put forward a motion in solidarity.

Dr Sen said the situation took a “bizarre” turn when he was told his talk could go ahead, as long as he did not say anything which breached anti-terror legislation given the IQB, the military wing of Hamas, is a proscribed terror organisation in the UK.

Dr Sen added: “The book engages in a scholarly discussion of the armed and civilian operations of Hamas as an organization. Such a discussion doesn’t violate anti-terror laws in the UK.”

Last month, the university received a petition signed by more than 500 people claiming it undermined academic freedom by describing an article as antisemitic. Signatories argued criticism of Israel should not be conflated with antisemitism.

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Glasgow University supports the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which is stated as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews".

Universities have been encouraged to sign up but some have questioned the definition’s practical use in determining guilt as well as its impact on academic inquiry.

A spokesperson for Glasgow University said: “Freedom of expression, the right to disagree, the protection of all staff and students in their right to hold views and of academic freedom are at the heart of our mission.

“We have written to BRISMES in response to its letter and stressed that we have not prohibited any academic from speaking at the university, nor have we prevented Dr Sen from doing so.”

The Jewish Society declined to comment.

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