UCL needs to Divest Now: Why Michael Spence must Listen to Protestors

Robert Delaney

(image via @are_eb on X)

As I write this opinion piece, pro-Palestinian encampments have sprung up on UCL’s Main Quad. Following in the footsteps of students at Columbia University in New York, there has been a mass student movement across the world, from the US to Japan, in protest of the prevalent complicity of universities with the ongoing slaughter of the Palestinian people. This is a landmark moment in the history of student protest, and the ways in which universities are reacting to the broadly peaceful protesting of their own students and faculty members is telling of whose interests senior management serve. As we have seen in the US, at UCLA, Yale, Columbia and other universities, the use of excessive force by police officers, allowed onto university grounds by senior leadership to stamp out the peaceful encampments, it is evident that the management of many universities across the globe wish not to engage with their own students through constructive discourse. 

Why have these encampments and occupations sprung up in the first place? As The Cheese Grater and other publications have reported in recent months, many universities are complicit in the facilitation of genocide in Gaza. Through the supply of students, research and facilities to weapons manufacturers like BAE Systems, Elbert System and Lockheed Martin amongst a plethora of other ethically abhorrent companies, universities, like UCL, have indirectly contributed to the ongoing suffering of the Gazan people. The above-mentioned companies sell weapons and military technology to the Israeli government, who in turn use such weapons to perform collective punishment on the people of Gaza for the actions of Hamas on October 7th 2023.

I must note here that I completely condemn the actions of Hamas on October 7th, it was a gross manifestation of anti-semitic violence that saw over a thousand innocent Jewish people slaughtered. I also express solidarity and condolence with my Jewish friends who lost loved ones in the anti-semitic mass slaughter.

The response by the Israeli government is something I cannot condone however. With at least 30,000 people killed in Gaza since October 7th, the complicity of UCL and other institutions with the ongoing violence is rightfully the core concern of their student and staff base. The current IDF military operation in Gaza has been accused of committing war crimes against the Palestinian people, and the government with which UCL and other universities are indirectly collaborating with has been cited to have used starvation as a tactic of war. Students and staff across the world are therefore rightfully demanding their institutions divest from arms companies that collaborate with the Israeli government, and cut ties with institutions that are in Israel, due to their direct complicity in the ongoing violence against Palestinian civilians. 

Over the course of 34 days, between March 12th and April 15th 2024, UCL Action for Palestine (UCL AFP), a student and staff organisation, staged an occupation of the Jeremy Bentham Room in the Wilkins Building. UCL AFP demanded numerous things from UCL, including divestment from arms companies, a scholarship scheme for Palestinian students to study at UCL and explicit remembrance for Refaat Alareer, a UCL alumni and poet who was killed by an Israeli airstrike. This action, condemned by some, was supported widely by academic staff, trade unions with staff operating on campus (The University and Colleges Union, IWGB and Unison) and the general student population. After the occupation’s conclusion, which was the longest in UCL’s near 200-year history, UCL’s Provost Dr Michael Spence made commitments to a Palestinian Scholarship Fund, an investigation into UCL’s partnership with Tel Aviv University, and an investigation into the partnerships UCL has with various arms companies. This is good progress towards the ultimate goal of divestment and institutional solidarity with the plight of the Palestinian people. However, it must be noted that a commitment is not a guarantee, it is the job of students, staff and organisations like UCL AFP to hold the Provost to account if such promises are not fulfilled. 

Regarding the current situation on campus, as it is unfolding, I cannot comment on what exact actions will be taken by senior leadership in the following days (this will be explored in a forthcoming article). However, if we take what happened across the pond as a template, it is clear that academic freedom and free speech in favour of a free Palestine and an end to the inhumane violence inflicted upon the Gazan people will not be tolerated by UCL management on campus. I can only hope that UCL does not follow in the footsteps of their Ivy League partners in calling the police on to campus, a supposed safe-space for freedom of speech and scholarship.

Related to the encampments, the Provost outlined his position on the protests in an email sent to all students on Thursday May 2nd 2024. The free-speech advocate notes that due to the ‘armed conflict’ in Gaza and the ‘troubling scenes on campuses in the US and elsewhere’ an environment in which ‘debate can be free, but also open to participation by all staff and students and safe for scholarly activity’ must be created on campus. He notes that protest must be allowed on campus, but disruption must be ‘manageable and in line with our Code of Conduct on free speech’. As such, Dr Spence writes that ‘there are limits to what we can allow flowing from our duties to encourage participation by all, and to give primacy to scholarly activity’. 

He goes on to express that: 

‘External individuals and organisations… are seeking to exploit the university’s duty to allow freedom of expression, to disrupt the university’s business in the name of their cause… we cannot allow something that causes significant disruption to the running of the university and interferes with our primary purpose as a place of learning and research.’

For an institution which promotes ‘disruptive thinking since 1826’, it seems as though the Provost does not wish for there to be disruption to the university’s regular functions in the name of a humanitarian cause. It seems as though protest is only allowed if in line with the university’s management aims. The line is drawn when free speech is expressed in formats that cause vaguely outlined unmanageable disruption to campus life. In promoting his ideal of ‘agreeing well’, the Provost is trying to take a neutral stance. But there is no neutrality in this instance. Tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being murdered in Gaza, and thousands of our fellow students are being beaten, shot at with rubber bullets and arrested by police across the globe. If the university is truly nothing without its students, then Dr Spence would listen to our demands. He would take note of the war crimes and violence in Gaza which is facilitated by UCL’s involvement with arms manufacturers. He would divest now to at least make a dent in the war machine currently destroying Gazan infrastructure, homes and lives. 

Dr Spence talks about the university as a ‘place of learning and research’, which is indeed true. Yet all the universities in Gaza have been annihilated and rampant scholasticide has seen the voices and contributions of Palestinian academics and students to the intellectual community silenced eternally. Such scholasticide has also claimed the life of UCL alumnus Refaat Alareer as noted above, and yet there has been no remembrance comment by UCL about this grave tragedy. Moreover, Dr Alareer’s young daughter was also slaughtered by an IDF missile strike recently, but UCL continues to not divest from arms companies enabling such killings. If UCL truly stands for learning and research, it would immediately do all it could to prevent scholarship from being destroyed in Gaza. Institutional solidarity is key in shifting our own government’s stance on Gaza, but without sufficient action from the Provost to show that UCL wishes to protect scholarship across the globe, all that can be done is continuous peaceful protest to ensure that student solidarity is heard. 

The Provost notes that tensions are high on campus and that reported instances of anti-semitism and Islamophobia have made him feel ‘horrified’. I agree that one should feel horror at such vile acts of racism, and I do not deny that this happens on campus. UCL needs to be a space open to all. To ensure this however, UCL must act in favour of humanity, regardless of race or religion. In continuing to support the current Israeli government, through collaborating with weapons manufacturers, UCL undermines its own rhetoric of humanity and tolerance, and shows to the students, who ultimately fund the institution, that our fees are going towards actions which will kill people en masse. 

We need the university to demand a ceasefire now, and to divest from arms companies immediately, as a means of helping cease the slaughter, starvation and denigration of the Palestinian people. Universities have, as Dr Spence himself notes in the aforementioned email, ‘always been places of ferment in times of historical change and conflict’, and this cannot change. UCL’s students have a rich tradition of student protest against international injustice, such as with student action against Apartheid in South Africa or UCL’s institutional facilitation of eugenics and racial science. As in those instances, the peaceful student movement must prevail for the sake of humanity. Only through student voices and action in protest of the institution’s collaboration with companies that help commit war crimes, will UCL stop lending a hand to the war-machine tearing apart communities in Gaza through indiscriminate slaughter.