Professor of Human Geography: “Academics have an important social responsibility”

sign over a camp of tents

An open letter was recently sent to Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt, signed by 200 members of the academic staff at Uppsala University who wanted to express their support for the students who are protesting.

It is important that academic staff, not just students, participate in the pro-Palestinian protests, according to Irene Molina, Professor of Human Geography at the Institute for Housing and Urban Research, Uppsala University.

An open letter was recently sent to Vice-Chancellor Anders Hagfeldt, signed by 200 members of the academic staff at Uppsala University who wanted to express their support for the students who are protesting. One of them was Irene Molina.

“The situation in Palestine has steadily worsened and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s necessary to do something from outside. Because there’s very little they can do from the inside.”

Strong support among employees

She thinks it is important to show that there is strong support for the demonstrators among the University’s employees.

“After all, students are the most vulnerable members of the University and risk being stigmatised as troublemakers. For this reason, it’s wrong to give the impression that it’s only students who care. I know there are many like me at the professorial level who very strongly denounce Israel’s occupation and genocide in Gaza. We do not want our University to contribute in any way whatsoever to such a terrible situation.”

Researchers on student protests

We have interviewed two researchers about the pro-Palestinian student protests currently taking place at Uppsala University and other universities in Sweden and around the world. Why are students demonstrating specifically at universities? How should the University respond to their demands?Read more: Professor of Political Science:“A clearer line is needed regarding student protests”

portrait of Irene in a park

She thinks it is important to show that there is strong support for the demonstrators among the University’s employees. Photo: Mikael Wallerstedt

Molina endorses the demonstrators’ demands that Uppsala University should end its collaborations with Israeli universities. A drastic measure, but in her opinion this is a situation that has brought matters to a head.

“Everything goes down in history; here at the University, we know that better than anyone. There’s a history Uppsala University is not particularly proud of, for example, from the time of the Institute for Racial Biology. We all have a responsibility to ensure that historical events with a negative stamp are not repeated.”

Fight for human rights

When asked why the universities specifically should take a position, she refers to Uppsala University’s Mission, Goals and Strategies and the fundamental values governing the University’s activities.

“The University is a place where it is possible to fight for human rights and defend democratic values. Moreover, we need to set an example for students and for younger generations.”

According to Molina, academia and intellectuals have a great social responsibility to lead the way when things go wrong in society.

“This isn’t just any old job, we have received many years of education and have priority to speak. We must be able to speak out and give warning when we see that society is moving in the wrong direction. The extreme situation we are witnessing in the Middle East and the Gaza Strip is not an everyday occurrence. I would be ashamed to face my children and grandchildren if I hadn’t shown that this was unacceptable to me.”

Get engaged politically

Another argument why academic staff should get involved in this issue is that as Swedish citizens they are fully entitled to engage in political activities alongside their professional role as academics. On the other hand, students who come from other countries do not have the opportunity to participate in formal political structures of this kind.

But isn’t it important for researchers to take an impartial and neutral approach?

“I think that idea is old-fashioned, out of date and wrong. There are widely differing opinions among colleagues here at the University, but I have insisted this is wrong for a very long time. Everything in society is political, whether we like it or not. Academics have an extra responsibility here, particularly those of us who are in higher positions and have the chance to express our opinions in speech and writing.”

Vandalism at the University

In recent days there has been a considerable amount of vandalism in connection with the protests. For example, the flagpoles outside the University Main Building have been vandalised. The word ‘genocide’ has been sprayed on the facade of the Segerstedt Building, along with handprints of red paint on the glass windows. However, the students camping in Carolina Park have not assumed responsibility for what has happened.

“I’ve talked with them and they have a set of principles they follow and everything they do is within the limits of the law. This is a peaceful movement, which is why many people want to support them. But being a peaceful movement does not mean that they do not cause any disturbance, the point is to disturb things in order to be heard and seen.”

Surprised and disappointed

Molina would have preferred there to have been no need for student protests to put pressure on the University Management and for them to have acted earlier, on their own initiative – much as happened when Russia’s war against Ukraine began and collaboration with Russian universities was stopped.

“The University’s response then was very quick, strong and effective. I think many people, like me, are rather surprised and disappointed that different peoples are treated differently. I do not want my University to be associated in any way with a genocide. As I say, history is being written here.”

Annica Hulth

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