Universiteit Leiden

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Academic freedom, protests and a safe campus: where are we and how are we going to move forward?

Leiden University has had a turbulent week. There have been protests inside and outside our buildings that have evoked reactions, and students and staff have felt unsafe. We want with this message to look back at the past week and look forward to the future. What happened and how do we now want to move forward?

The Israel-Gaza conflict and the suffering of the people who are so severely affected by it touch us deeply. These are tumultuous times.

As a university, we have together the responsibility to continue to have a respectful dialogue with one another and to remain open to other perspectives. Over the recent period, we have held many discussions with those involved in our community, including about who we collaborate with and why.

We realise that we do not yet have a university procedure for assessing our partnerships in terms of ethical aspects such as human rights violations and war crimes. We are now going to develop an appropriate procedure, and are appointing a temporary committee for this purpose. You can read more about this below.  

Academic freedom

Academic freedom is crucial for our university and we hold dear our motto Praesidium Libertatis. This academic freedom is an important asset and leads to better scientific findings and relations worldwide. But what does this core value mean in the current era of turmoil? Collaborations are under fire because of protests. There are limits to academic freedom associated with our norms and values. It goes without saying that we do not want to contribute to such issues as human rights violations or war crimes. Exactly how this plays out and where the limits to this freedom lie is something we want to examine further, together with our academic community and our participation bodies. We will do this precisely in order to protect this freedom and to avoid ad hoc decisions being made. We will do this by setting up a temporary committee.

Temporary committee

This temporary Ethics Review Committee for International Collaborations, which has yet to be established, will formulate a working method for assessing proposals. The university is already working on setting up a broad committee that can evaluate new partnerships and projects, including with the fossil industry. The formation of this committee will take some time. The Executive Board therefore decided on 14 May to accelerate the ethical review of our international partnerships, paying particular attention to regions of conflict. In view of the threatened protests, the Executive Board decided on earlier publication of information about this policy.  

Ties with Israeli universities 

There are some people or groups who are under the impression that we are going to cut our ties with Israeli universities anyway, or have even already done so. This perception is incorrect. We will ask the new temporary committee to review current collaborations with organisations in conflict regions, including in any event Israel-Gaza.

We further reported in our 17 May message that there are institutional exchange programmes with two Israeli universities for which admission will be halted until an ethical evaluation has taken place. We want to be more precise about this. For next semester, students already registered can start as normal. However, no new applications will be accepted within these institutional programmes until after the evaluation

We realise that the next steps we want to take will not be easy and may again meet resistance, but, as a learning organisation, we rely on the intellectual capacity of our staff and students.

A look back at the protests

Over the past week, Leiden University has experienced a number of protests arising from the  ongoing Gaza war: on Monday 13 May there was a so-called walk-out, on 16 and 17 May there were larger-scale protests on the campus.

The walk-out started at around 11.00 hrs. at two locations: the Lipsius Building in Leiden and the  Wijnhaven Building at Campus The Hague. Several hundred people took part in these walk-outs. The walk-out in Leiden ended after about half an hour; the walk-out in The Hague lasted slightly longer. The protests were peaceful at both locations, although some slogans and texts were considered offensive by students and staff members. 

On Thursday 16 May, at around 13.30 hrs., a group of people entered the building at Wijnhaven, Campus The Hague, where they chanted slogans and blocked the emergency exits. Because this endangered the safety of all those present, Leiden University decided to close the premises. A considerable group refused to comply. A second group of protesters had in the meantime gathered outside the campus.

There was regular contact between members of staff of the university and representatives of the group throughout the afternoon. At the same time, the university was in close contact with the mayor, the Public Prosecution Service and the police. The Board of Governors and the University Council were kept informed. By early evening, most people in the Wijnhaven building had left of their own volition. The university had announced that the building must be empty by 19.30 hrs. 

A day later, on Friday 17 May, some 20 people gathered at around 8.30 hrs. at the Academy Building in Leiden. They closed the entrance gate at the front of the building, hung banners and flags and set up some tents in the Hortus botanicus. During the morning, several more groups of protesters joined, and by early afternoon there were around 100 people on the grounds.

The Academy Building, the Hortus and the adjacent P.J. Veth Building were closed as a result of the protest. Several events in the Academy Building and in the Hortus were moved to another location.

The university was in contact with representatives of the protesters on several occasions to make them aware of the house rules and publication of the policy on collaboration. As the protestors did not adhere to the house rules and because of concerns about the historical importance and the vulnerability of the protest site, the university decided half-way through the afternoon that the protest must be brought to a close. When the university issued an ultimatum, the protesters left the premises voluntarily at the end of the afternoon.

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