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  • Writer's pictureThe Gaudie

University Senate condemns violence in Gaza after tense discussions

Technical issues persisted as senators deliberated over wording

By Kirsten Koss & Finn Abou El Magd

Three motions went before the University Senate last Wednesday as student efforts brought the Israel-Palestine conflict to the university’s highest academic body. 


As proceedings got underway- ten minutes late- several senators in the Microsoft Teams chat reported technical problems. 


The Gaudie previously reported on tech issues at Senate's last meeting, which was plagued with similar failures. Despite a technician in the room noting the glitches, some senators were unable to comment during the meeting.  


Student senator Fred Byrne told The Gaudie: 


“The online Senate meeting was glitchy and it was difficult to follow discussions online. Unfortunately, I was not called upon to contribute on the discussion on Palestine despite virtually raising my hand and indicating my wish to speak in the chat.” 


'Education is a lifeline’  


Sanaa Al-Azawi, AUSA’s Postgraduate Education Representative, passionately addressed the chamber.  


She said: “Professors, academics and innocent civilians have been among the thousands that have been killed, their dreams and inspiration shattered by the brutality of Israeli bombardments.  


“As members of institutions dedicated to knowledge, enlightenment and progress, we cannot turn a blind eye on such atrocity. Universities are meant to be sanctuaries of learning, places where minds are nurtured, and futures are shaped.  


“Yet, in Gaza, these very institutions have become targets of destruction, leaving a trail of devastation in their wake.” 


Ms Al-Azawi's comments were echoed by Rasha Abu Eid, a staff senator from MMSN, who noted: “for Palestinians, education is a lifeline.” 


The Senate discussion comes a Al Jazeera reports that more than 396 educational facilities have been damaged by Israeli bombardment as of March 28th, 2024. 


As the discussion continued, AUSA Vice President for Education Rhiannon Ledwell suggested that some members of the University community felt unable to speak freely on the conflict:  


“People feel like they are being censored. Students haven’t been able to write about the topic for projects, academics haven’t been able to speak about it in class. Something practical needs to come from this to explicitly say this is how we are supporting and facilitating discussion on this topic. We need to make this a safe space for people.”  


In response, Principal George Boyne noted: “Freedom of speech within the law is a value that [the University] holds dear.” 


“If there are individuals who feel that their freedom of speech has been suppressed, I would like to meet with them, I would like to talk to them, I would like to hear from them.” 


Responding after the meeting, Ayah Mbarki and Warren Backman from the AUSA-affiliated Palestinian Solidarity Society called Professor Boyne ‘disingenuous’, adding that the Principal had refused to meet with members of the society.  


Tense discussion ensued as senators debated wording 


As the open discussion drew to a close, three motions were brought to the floor. During debate over the first motion, entitled “Senate condemns the systematic destruction of Palestinian education institutions and knowledge systems”, one staff senator suggested that the motion lacked evidence:   

“This motion says there is systematic destruction of something,” he said.  


“We’re supposed to be an evidence-based Senate. I don’t know where the evidence is for this. It's a very strong statement and it may be true, but we have not seen anything to support this.” 


With no further comments, the motion was carried, with 56 in favour, 6 against and 18 abstentions. 


The second motion called upon the University to “to commit to supporting Palestinian academics and knowledge workers during this time of crisis and its aftermath by promoting and extending scholarship arrangements for Palestinian students and arguing for financial support.” This also passed with 42 in favour, 30 against and 30 abstentions. 


The third and final motion proved to be contentious, as Senate debated whether to include a specific reference to Palestine. The original motion read: “Senate expresses support for academic freedom and condemns censorship of expressions of solidarity with Palestine.” 


One senator voiced concerns regarding the reference to Palestine and reasoned that removing the reference to Palestine would allow for “freedom of expression on both sides of this debate.” Three senators from the floor voiced their support to remove the reference. 


After a period of confusion about the amended motion, University Secretary Tracey Slaven articulated the amendment: “Senate expresses support for academic freedom and freedom of speech of this and other conflicts within the legal framework of the UK.” 


This did little to appease opposing senators, with one staff senator asking: 

“Can we make a clear reference to Gaza, at least? There is a problem with freedom of speech of academia. I would like to have a mention at least about the Israel-Palestine conflict.” 

The amended motion went to a vote and carried with 62 in favour, 8 against and 14 abstentions. 


On the amendment to the motion, Mr Byrne told The Gaudie:  


“It was disappointing to see some staff senators remove the reference to Palestine in Senate’s expression of support for academic freedom. The amendment was in bad taste given the importance of supporting the Palestinian people amid civilian deaths and man-made famine.” 


Following another call from the floor, Ms Slaven introduced a fourth and final motion: 


“Senate is being asked to confirm in addition to the motion it has already passed, that it is content to make clear that in expressing support for academic freedom and freedom of expression that that applies specifically to the conflict in Gaza and the wider region.” 


The final motion carried with 43 in favour, 15 against and 19 abstentions. 


An anonymous staff member told The Gaudie: 


“The discussion was tense, and some senators tried to divert the focus from Palestine to global conflicts. However, I believe it was crucial to concentrate on the humanitarian catastrophe in Palestine and acknowledge the consequences of this war on the future of Palestinian knowledge.”


Staff and Students Express Hope 

Despite the contentious nature of the proceedings, one staff senator praised the Students’ Union council motion: 


“I am delighted that constructive discussions on the ongoing conflict in Gaza and the broader Israeli-Palestinian issue have taken place at the university level. I would also like to express my appreciation for AUSA's efforts to pass a motion supporting the cessation of hostilities in Gaza.” 


Ms Mbarki and Mr Backman told The Gaudie that the Palestinian Solidarity society also felt hopeful following the meeting: 

“We hope to keep working alongside everyone to ensure we are freely available to talk about Palestine and ensure the university is a safe place for everyone.” 


The Senate will meet again on 8th May for an additional session where the group will discuss the implementation of the University’s plan to make the modern languages department ‘financially viable’.  


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