Interview with Ruard Ganzevoort from Rotterdam committee

Ethics committees investigate ties to Israel: ‘No delaying tactic’

cut ties gaza
Protest on Dom Square. Photo: DUB

University students and staff keep calling on universities to cut ties with Israeli institutions. Pro-Palestinian protesters erected a tent camp in Delft and occupied a university building in Nijmegen, which has since been cleared out.

So far, universities have done little to nothing to meet the demands. The only thing the universities of Leiden, Maastricht, Nijmegen, Rotterdam and Tilburg are doing is setting up committees to investigate these controversial collaborations. At Utrecht University, the Executive Board has promised to re-examine all of its collaborations before summer, together with the faculty deans.

And no, that’s not a delaying tactic, says Professor Ruard Ganzevoort. “Most anything can be viewed as a delaying tactic, but I think universities are sincerely looking to figure out how to handle these partnerships sensibly.”

Ganzevoort, who was a senator for GroenLinks until last year, is the dean of the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) in The Hague, which is part of Erasmus University Rotterdam. On behalf of that university, he will lead a committee on sensitive partnerships. His first goal is to put a "framework" into writing.

Why aren’t you looking at the partnerships right away?
“First, we want to know what criteria partnerships must fulfil. Erasmus University wishes to have a positive impact on society, which raises the question: can we collaborate with a certain institution to this end? And, if so, what is the importance of this collaboration to the field?”

But wasn’t this committee set up because of Gaza?
“That did accelerate things, but it could have been another issue. Such a framework would have come in handy when we got questions about our collaborations with the fossil industry or when Russia invaded Ukraine. These kinds of issues will come up more and more often because geopolitical complexity is increasing.”

How does a committee like that function? Are the meetings public or are you weighing up all of the arguments behind closed doors?
“I would prefer to work as transparently as possible, but I can’t say that yet. Personally, I advocate openness wherever possible.”

Is such a committee intended to put a stop to the debate? As in: "The committee has had its say, now it’s over"?
“On the contrary, as an academic community, we play and will continue to play an important role in major societal issues. We can clarify them, ask critical questions, analyse what’s happening. Some scientists feel like that’s enough and that’s a legitimate stance. But there’s also room for academics who want to take up a position that is more based on social engagement, realising that knowledge is also a form of power. The committee is merely intended to help weigh up the arguments as diligently as possible.”

Will occupations end? Will this reduce the polarisation?
“No, that’s not something this committee can achieve. Erasmus University wants to do three things: facilitate dialogue, investigate sensitive partnerships and look into doing something constructive for students and scientists in Gaza. After all, the entire academic structure in Gaza has been obliterated. A committee isn’t the only answer to polarisation.”

Is there enough debate within educational institutions?
“No, I don’t think that happens enough, but let’s be fair: it’s a pretty difficult matter. Every attempt to have a conversation about it is almost immediately under pressure and is quick to get out of hand because of that same polarisation.”

So first you will create a framework and then start thinking about Gaza. Approximately how long will this take?
“This is urgent, we can’t wait much longer. I would love to be more specific and say we will finish the framework by the end of the week, but that’s a promise I might not be able to keep. Besides, we have to be diligent.”

Is cutting ties with Israel compatible with academic freedom and openness in science?
“That’s one of the things we need to consider. What I can say is that many of those freedoms are collective freedoms, which apply more to an institution than to an individual scientist. In the end, exchange relationships are organised by an institution. This is not to say that they are entirely separate from the individual, but it does mean there’s a collective responsibility as well.

You also have to distinguish between research and education. A student exchange is essentially different from a discussion on knowledge security: what do you do when another country directly uses our knowledge to make weapons? Do we legitimise that as an institution? And what does it mean to students or a field if we terminate the collaboration? You can disagree with what’s happening in a country, but that may mean two things: you either continue the collaboration or terminate it. So it all depends on the circumstances.”

Who is part of your committee? Does it include students?
“No, no students. The committee is composed of ‘academic experts’, who gather information from as many sources as possible. The committee focuses on weighing up arguments. We want to take account of as many different visions and lines of reasoning as possible, but the committee itself shouldn’t turn into a battlefield.”

Why did they ask you?
“Tasks like these are always divided up amongst the deans. Perhaps it was a factor that I’m dean of the International Institute of Social Studies, which deals with many societal issues. I also acquired a great deal of experience in the Senate on political issues and the sometimes complicated international relations.”