At the Open University, the  OU for Ceasefire in Gaza Group held its first webinar as follows: The Israel-Palestine issue comes to the Open University: How to facilitate free debate?The talks  included a decolonial discourse analysis of the OU’s public statement, which reproduced the dominant US-UK-Israeli narrative. See recording here

Its second webinar will be held on 8th Feb: Palestine’s history: why is it so contentious?Registration page:

In parallel the Group’s Steering Committee sent the OU’s Executive Team a letter (see below) criticising administrative measures suppressing or deterring free speech on the Israel-Palestine issue.  The letter asks the administration to remove or avoid such measures.  The letter was signed by ten academics spanning all the OU’s Faculties.  The Steering Committee has met with the Executive Team to resolve the issues in the letter.

Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech and the Silencing of Pro-Palestinian Support at the OU

The Vice-Chancellor and the Executive Team at The Open University

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Dear Vice-Chancellor and Executive Team,

In mid-October, Internal Communications and Engagement released a statement on the ‘Israel-Hamas
War’, which had two entangled problems: its uncritical reproduction of the UK government’s proIsraeli stance and its covert suppression of free speech. Unfortunately, from our many conversations
with students and staff across the university, we have evidence that the statement effectively silenced
much pro-Palestinian support at the OU, that it produced widespread fear and anxiety about speaking
out on the issue, and that some were even actively deterred from doing so. Our sources want to
remain anonymous, but we would encourage you to establish the issue for yourselves as well as its
pervasiveness across units.

Although we appreciate that discouraging debate is likely to come from a place of good intent, with
reasons cited including ‘duty of care to a diverse staff and student population’, ‘EDI issues’,
‘safeguarding and wellbeing’, ‘the OU being an institution that cares about people’, ‘not wishing to
cause offence’, etc., we are concerned that these priorities, however laudable, come at the expense
of the university’s legal duty to be ‘proactive in protecting academic freedom’ Statement of Principles
on Academic Freedom [emphasis added]. We ask that the VC and Executive Team urgently intervene
to find a way to attend to EDI issues without sacrificing the university’s legal duty to be proactive in
protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech. The two must go hand in hand; otherwise, all
the talk about EDI will ring very hollow.

We put to you that in a wider political climate where the UK government brands peaceful protests as
‘hate marches’, intimidates the UKRI EDI advisory board for speaking out for Palestine, and where
some pro-Palestinian voices are criminalized, silenced or face false accusations of antisemitism, our
university has never had a more crucial role to fulfil:

‘By being places of debate universities are one of our most important pillars of civil society and
represent a safeguard against forces that divide and undermine society. If universities are to be the
innovative and dynamic organisations that push back the boundaries of knowledge in areas of science,
social sciences and the humanities, they must also be places where differing and difficult views can be
brought forward, listened to and challenged’ Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom.
As our own alumnus Stuart Hall said, ‘the university is a critical institution or it is nothing’.
In that spirit, we put to you that the university must do more not only to support but to proactively
encourage staff and students to critically analyse and debate this and other important societal issues,
no matter how ‘sensitive’ they might seem to some. While many across the university share our views
on the Israel-Palestine issue, we welcome the views of those who don’t. Remaining silent or
pretending to be neutral, however, is also a stance. In the words of Desmond Tutu: ‘If you are neutral
in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the
tail of a mouse and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.’

Intervention by the cross-faculty OU Ceasefire in Gaza Group

In an attempt to undo the damage of silencing pro-Palestinian support within the OU, the cross-faculty
‘OU Ceasefire in Gaza Group’ has intervened. The group was formed as a direct response to the OU
Comms statement. We have been meeting on a weekly basis since mid-November 2023. Our first
activity was a webinar on the topic ‘The Israel-Palestine issue comes to the Open University: How to
facilitate free debate?’, which ran on 15 December 2023 with over 70 participants. In this webinar, we
conduct an in-depth discourse analysis of the OU Comms statement to reveal its implicit and explicit
pro-Israel narrative. We also remind participants about the OU’s adoption of the Jerusalem
Declaration on Antisemitism alongside the IHRA working definition of antisemitism, the combination
of which secured a space for academic freedom and freedom of speech on the Israel-Palestine issue,
alleviating fear of being labelled antisemitic when criticising Israel’s actions. (The OU Senate fought
hard for a dual adoption, foreseeing that unless both definitions were adopted, we might end up in
the current climate of self-censoring!) Our webinar also features an external speaker who discusses
the silencing of pro-Palestinian support at other universities and reminds participants that such
silencing has no legal basis. Forthcoming activities include a webinar which will focus on why the
history of Israel-Palestine is so contentious and how it has been addressed in academia. A sub-group
is also looking at definitions of Islamophobia, which will be taken to the Senate for discussion.
Going forward, we have three simple, actionable requests for the VC and the Executive Team.

1. All Heads of Units should be reminded of their legal duty to proactively protect academic
freedom and free speech
We ask the VC and Executive Team to remind all unit leaders about their legal duty to be proactive in
protecting academic freedom and freedom of speech. This reminder must be sent to and cascaded
through all units (the Graduate School, Academic Services, Internal Comms, People Services,
Professional Services, and all Faculties and Schools, etc.) to ensure that everyone across the university
from the top to the bottom is aware. Within a wider policy drive on academic freedom and free
speech, the recent appointment of an OfS director for freedom of speech and academic freedom as
well as the prospect of imposing fines on universities that encroach on freedom of speech, this is an
opportunity for the OU to show leadership, by shifting the prevailing organizational culture from one
of fear, offence and outrage to one of dialogue, debate and exchange. Going forward, we ask that the
university does more to proactively protect academic freedom and freedom of speech, not just for
pro-Palestinian voices, but for everyone within our university community. Unless that happens
urgently, beginning with the Israel-Palestine issue, we put to you that not only is the university
contravening its legal duty, but we are all complicit in war crimes under international law.

2. OU Comms should release a new statement on Israel-Palestine that explicitly acknowledges
academic freedom and freedom of speech
We ask that Comms issues a new statement on Israel-Palestine that makes explicit reference to the
university’s Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom to undo the chilling effect of the silencing
caused by the earlier statement. On the statement’s first release, some of us had asked Comms for a
number of simple changes (e.g., to include mention of Israel’s military response alongside Hamas’
attacks and to include mention of Islamophobia alongside antisemitism). We are grateful for the
changes made; however, when we pushed for further changes, we were told that it was not possible,
but that the situation would be monitored. While we accept that the OU may not wish to be seen to
take sides on the Israel-Palestine issue (notwithstanding that it has effectively, albeit perhaps
unwittingly, already done so), we would suggest that, at the very least, Comms can and should do
more to explicitly acknowledge the highly divergent narratives on the issue and, in line with their legal
duty to do so, proactively promote and encourage alternative views and analyses. In an email to us,
Commssaid that the statement had aimed to focus on staff wellbeing and to remind people of existing
policies. That’s understandable. However, one legally binding policy glaring in its absence is the
Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom. In addition to explicitly referring to these principles, a
reissued statement could also usefully remind staff and students of the OU’s adoption of the
Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism alongside the IHRA definition of antisemitism.

3. Our activities and webinars should be announced across the university
So far, we have been restrictive in the dissemination of our activities and events within the OU, given
the covert and overt pushback we have faced as well as unclarity about how and where to disseminate
them. We now ask for your support. Going forward, we request that the VC and the Executive Team
openly facilitate and proactively support our activities, in line with the university’s legal duty to do so.
Our activities have never been more important or more needed and university-wide dissemination is
crucial. Our events aim to build literacies on the Israel-Palestine issue and to open up a space for
debate for those who wish to learn more and to speak out. Although we appreciate that not everyone
will wish to take part in our activities, our concern at the moment are the many who do but who have
felt fearful or been actively deterred from speaking out. Although we know that many people in the
university do share our views, we respect that some don’t; yet we welcome their views nonetheless.
We will be in touch over the next few weeks with specific requests to relevant units to disseminate
information about our events.
Thank you in advance for reading our letter. We look forward to your response.

Kind regards,

On behalf of the OU Ceasefire in Gaza Group, Steering Committee,

Kristina Hultgren, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow and Professor of Sociolinguistics and Applied Linguistics,
Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies (WELS)
Les Levidow, Senior Research Fellow, Development Policy and Practice (DPP), Faculty of Arts and Social
Sciences (FASS)
Lina Aghajanian, Programme Manager, Global Development Team, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education
and Language Studies (WELS)
Tracie Farrell, UKRI Future Leaders Fellow in the Knowledge Media Institute (KMi), Faculty of Science,
Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Ben Wiedel-Kaufmann, Staff Tutor in Art History, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)
Kristen Reid, Senior Lecturer in Work-Based Learning, The Open University Business School, Faculty of
Business and Law (FBL)
Farnaz Rais, Stakeholder Engagement & Delivery Lead in the Office of Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Students)
Jaspal Naveel Singh, Lecturer in Applied Linguistics and English Language, Faculty of Wellbeing,
Education and Language Studies (WELS)
Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in Computing, School of Computing and Communications, Faculty of Science,
Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
Carlos Azevedo, Visiting Fellow, Open University Business School, Faculty of Business and Law (FBL)
Shannon Martin, PhD student in Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS)