Recent correspondence with the Vice-Chancellor regarding Gaza

Please find below the branch’s recent correspondence with the Vice-Chancellor regarding the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and motions that were passed at the Southampton UCU General Meeting – 12th March 2024 and the Emergency General Meeting – 10th May 2024 (reconvened).

Following receipt of the Vice-Chancellor’s reply, the branch executive has decided:

  1. To add an appropriate agenda item to the next JJNC meeting between trade unions and management, and
  2. That the Branch President will contact the Associate Vice-President EDI and Social Justice to request a meeting.

We will keep members updated.

Email from Southampton UCU President to the Vice-Chancellor, 10 June 2024.

Dear Vice-Chancellor,

Following discussions at the JJNC on 16 May, I write to advise you of various resolutions passed by the Southampton UCU Branch concerning the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

At a reconvened Emergency General Meeting on 10 May, and after considerable debate, the branch passed by a large majority a motion entitled ‘Declaration of the sanctity of education and life for all and a call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire (Ceasefire now and an end to “Educide”)’. This motion, which can be viewed at https://southampton.web.ucu.org.uk/2024/05/10/emergency-general-meeting-10th-may-2024-reconvened/ and is appended below, demands that the University of Southampton takes several actions, which can be found under resolution 1. UCU members are horrified by the events in Gaza and are looking to the University to act; I therefore request that the demands in resolution 1 are given your most serious consideration.

You may also be interested to know that, at a previous General Meeting of the Branch on 12 March, members resolved to authorise humanitarian donations to the charities Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) and Friends of Birzeit University (Fobzu). As a result of the latter donation, I have been invited to represent the Branch at a conference organised by Fobzu later this month, on the topic ‘Emergency Support for Palestinian Higher Education’. I will of course be sharing what I learn at that conference with local UCU members, but I would also be very pleased to share what I learn with you and UEB too.

Yours sincerely,
[Southampton UCU President]

[A copy of the motion was appended to the email]

Reply from the Vice-Chancellor to the Southampton UCU President, 19 June 2024

Dear [Southampton UCU President],

I have now had the opportunity to discuss with colleagues on the University Executive Board (UEB) the various issues raised in the resolutions recently passed by the UCU branch. Although the JJNC meetings should continue to be a forum for these discussions, I thought it might be helpful if I set out some general points in response.

I fully understand that this continues to be an incredibly difficult time for many in our community, some of whom I know have deep personal connections with the region. I am sure all of us share a continuing horror at the October 7th attacks on Israel and the ensuing devastating impact of hostilities on all civilian populations, and the heart-breaking humanitarian crisis that has unfolded in Gaza. All of us on UEB fervently hope for a swift and lasting cessation of hostilities on all sides.

I also fully understand and respect the passionately-held views of many in our University community, some of which are reflected in the resolutions that were passed. Equally, I accept there will always be multiple, diverse points of view and no single ‘right’ answer’ on issues such as this, and that there is often a greater complexity and nuance than is found within the current media, social media and political commentary. Some in our community have contacted me direct to explain why they strongly disagree with the resolutions that were passed by the UCU branch. This illustrates the complexity for the University when there are such opposing views held by different people, as you of course will have experienced yourself, with clear differences of views amongst the small number of members who voted.

Having different views is of course, how it should be. Universities, of all places, should provide a safe forum in which our staff and students feel they can freely and respectfully express their lawful views, and feel they are seen, safe and supported. As I have said previously, freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental cornerstones of our institution, which I will ensure we will continue always to uphold, and which as a sector we must robustly defend.

I know too that many in our community continue to be concerned about the rise in Antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents seen in some areas. I repeat my pledge that we will ensure that all members of our community feel safe, and that we will not hesitate to take swift and decisive action against any threats to any members of our staff and student community.

As a University, we have to balance a number of obligations and responsibilities, which is not always easy, as we have seen elsewhere. We have to balance our legal requirement to be impartial with the expectations of some for us to take a more public position. We have to balance our obligations to uphold lawful freedom of speech and academic freedom with a recognition that some may fundamentally disagree with what’s said, and find it upsetting. Lawful freedom of speech does mean that some views can be expressed that others may strongly disagree with, or be offended by.

Above all, I am most anxious that at a time of heightened tensions and emotions, we as a very diverse community – with students from more than 170 countries, and staff from more than 90 countries – remain sensitive to and respectful of each other’s perspectives, and ensure that all members of our communities feel safe, supported and included. I am very grateful to [our Associate Vice-President EDI and Social Justice] who has been talking to a number of individuals and groups on these issues, to ensure the voices of our staff and students are heard, and to actively promote inclusive behaviours and protect freedom of speech.

Whilst I understand the views of those who question the continuation of some industry relationships, partnerships and investments, I have always believed passionately in universities taking an approach of influence and change through positive engagement, not isolation or retreat, and ensuring academic freedom around research collaborations, unless prohibited by the UK Government.

I am confident that after many years of strong leadership and careful thought we have robust ethical frameworks and governance around all our decision-making relating to research partnerships, the acceptance of gifts, and our investments, and that these align with our core values as an institution. Nevertheless, universities do not exist in a bubble and to be truly values-driven our work must always be alive to real-world issues and heightened ethical concerns, and so it is of course right that we regularly review these, in discussion with our community. So, we are currently in the process of reviewing our Responsible Partnerships Statement, which sets out the principles we adopt around our research partnerships; and we have relatively recently reviewed our Gift Acceptance and Naming Policy governing our philanthropic activity across the University. Our University investment policy is governed by an Investment Committee, as an advisory committee reporting to our Council, and again this is an area we are continuing to review and reflect on.

Finally, we take our responsibilities as a Civic University very seriously, not just in respect of our place in our region, but also in respect of our place and responsibilities in the global community as a world top 100 university. We are acutely conscious of the impact on academic institutions, their staff and students, from global conflict, and I was very pleased to support our application to become a University of Sanctuary, and earlier this month I was delighted to meet and talk with the accreditation team assessing our application. I was also very pleased to see us launch two new annual Sanctuary scholarships to support UG and PGT students, and we are now actively considering doubling our support in the future, so more students from conflict areas can be supported.

I continue to be heartened that we as an inclusive community are embodying the values and behaviours that unite us, and not divide us.

With best wishes,
[Vice-Chancellor]