The responsible university

In world dominated by social media, a deeper engagement with arguments, analysis of those arguments has been lacking

Muhammad Hamid Zaman May 28, 2024
The author is a Professor and the Director of Center on Forced Displacement at Boston University


Students-led protests with a focus on Palestine, during the last few weeks of April and early part of May, at several US universities became the latest flashpoint on the issues of conflict, genocide, free speech, academic freedom, civil debate and the role of the university on matters of global significance. This movement inspired protests across the world, including in Pakistan, where the context was substantially different. The demands of students at the US universities were focused on investment and divestment, engagement and disengagement with institutions in Israel, and whether there was a Palestine “exception” when it came to university policies. These are incredibly important questions that universities must respond to. However, I note that none of these concerns were relevant when it came to universities in Pakistan. The student protests at various institutions were not really protests — they were part of a solidarity campaign with peers at other institutions. Because there was not much to protest or debate at institutions in Pakistan, as the campuses in the US have started to thin out with the end of the semester, the students-led solidarity events at Pakistani institutions have also evaporated. While unsurprising, I believe this is a lost opportunity for learning, engaging and reflecting on the bigger issue of justice, equity and human dignity.

The first issue is that of learning. The last seven months have been incredibly painful for so many — including those in all parts of the world who have no ethnic or personal ties to the region. During this time, students who otherwise have had limited awareness of the historical context have started reading texts by a variety of scholars, researchers, activists and practitioners to develop a more nuanced understanding of history, contemporary politics and the lived experience. Many (though not all) have also made an effort to read perspectives from the other side and have engaged with those arguments. This, unfortunately, has been lacking at many of our institutions. In the world dominated by social media, a deeper engagement with arguments and analysis of those arguments has been lacking. I recognise that some of this is hard, painful and often infuriating, but our students who are passionate about this issue should be strongly encouraged to read perspective from all sides to not only better understand the perspective of others, but also to develop sharper arguments for their own cause.

This takes me to my second point. As I reflect on the current moment, and the lost opportunity to learn, I also cannot help but wonder if we are ever ready to read, analyse and reflect on counter arguments. For example, how often are we ready to read with an open mind the perspective of those we demonise within our own society? Or those that may be critical of our own world view or politics? Or read texts from across the border? No one is asking us to agree, or accept the arguments, but why are we not even ready to be uncomfortable in the comfort of our own classrooms? Real learning must be built on questions — those questions require critical analysis and the discomfort of challenging dogma and status quo.

Finally, students, faculty and university leadership have to think what is the core argument in support of Palestinians. I believe it should be built on the values of freedom, equity and human dignity across regions and religions. As another angry mob of hundreds burns down the houses and businesses of Christian communities in Sargodha, we have to ask: how do we tackle bigotry near our own campuses? When are we going to own the problem, and understand why this cycle of violence continues to erupt every few months and creates a society that is inhospitable to its most vulnerable? In and outside the classrooms, we should ask about the role of the university in creating an equitable society that is free of bigotry and hatred, racism and exclusion in all parts of the world, including our own home. Some of that discussion will be uncomfortable, but we can no longer delay it.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 28th, 2024.

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