Paul Mylrea (right), was installed to chair the meeting after the University intervenedCambridge University Palestine Society

The University of Cambridge has apologised to SOAS academic Dr Ruba Salih for requesting that an alternative chair be chosen for a panel co-hosted by the Cambridge University Palestine Society (PalSoc) and the Cambridge University Middle East Society.

The incident, which took place in November last year, was widely criticised at the time, described by one academic as “heavy-handed policing of speech on campus”. Over 500 people, including academic Professor Noam Chomsky, condemned the University’s actions in an open letter.

The University’s statement acknowledged that the decision “was the wrong response on this occasion”, adding “that it evoked strong and understandable concerns within our own community and beyond relating to academic freedom”.

In full The University’s statement

The University of Cambridge has recently reviewed its handling of an external speaker event that took place on its premises on 8 November 2017. BDS and the Globalised Struggle for Human Rights, organised by the Cambridge University Palestine Society, was due to be chaired by SOAS academic Dr Ruba Salih. However, following a meeting of the University's Prevent Referral Group - called 24 hours before the event was due to take place, and after a similar event at a London university had been disrupted - it was decided that her role as chair should be taken on by another person.

The University would like to acknowledge that its decision to impose an alternative chair was the wrong response on this occasion, that it evoked strong and understandable concerns within our own community and beyond relating to academic freedom, and portrayed Dr Salih in a manner that does not befit a respected academic with more than 15 years' experience of chairing meetings in a balanced and scholarly way. We therefore would like to apologise to Dr Salih for removing her as a chair, and we recognise that there was no evidence to support the view that she would not ensure a democratic debate, allowing all views to be expressed.

The University is committed to responding to the various legislation governing external speaker events in an appropriate and balanced way. Reviewing how we do this, listening to views and feedback, and refining our procedures accordingly, is an important part of our ongoing response to this challenge.

Click to show

The panel discussion, entitled ‘BDS and the Globalised Struggle for Human Rights’, concerned the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory through political and economic pressure.

PalSoc welcomed the University’s apology in a statement published today, saying: “We are encouraged by the University’s recognition and understanding of the outrage this decision provoked among both students and faculty in Cambridge and in the international academic community regarding its discriminatory character and infringement of academic freedom”.

Following the University’s decision to replace Dr. Salih with the University’s director of communications, Paul Mylrea, one day prior to the event, PalSoc published an open letter condemning the move.


Mountain View

Comment: The censoring of the PalSoc debate in a free university is unacceptable

The decision to block Salih from chairing the event was made in a meeting of the University’s Prevent Referral Group, which advises on University response to the Prevent Act. Prevent, part of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, calls on higher education institutions to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”. The University claimed Mylrea had been appointed following “calls from the organisers for extra safety measures”.

The University’s implementation of the Prevent policy has continued to face scrutiny from Cambridge students: In a CUSU Council last month, the student union passed a motion which condemned the counter-terrorism/security policy as “fundamentally flawed in its approach”. CUSU president Daisy Eyre, who sits on the University’s main Prevent committee, said that from her understanding the incident last term is the only time the University has used Prevent to intervene in an event.