Academic boycotts are a time-honored way of trying to force change, though some have fared better than others. The classic example is the anti-apartheid movement on campuses that helped put political pressure on South Africa to end the practice. More recently, an academic boycott of Israel has been making headlines.
Here are four academic boycotts and a quick look at whether they worked.
In December, the American Studies Association endorsed a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and the controversy has not died down since. A handful of schools have said they were withdrawing from the association, and a wave of professors, administrators and other associations criticized the move. For its part, the American Studies Association says the move is meant to protest Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Opponents of the boycott say it impinges on academic freedom. Princeton, Harvard and Yale are among institutions that have explicitly rejected the boycott. While the movement initially gained publicity for its cause, the overwhelming balance of the publicity at this point seems to be backlash.
The anti-apartheid movement is undoubtedly the biggest academic boycott of the last few decades. Pressure to withdraw institutional money from South Africa grew over the course of the 1980s, but spurred by student protests, the movement was particularly felt on college campuses. In 1984, 53 educational institutions had pulled their money from South Africa; by 1988, that number was 155. Students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign built a shantytown on the campus. Companies such as chemical corporation FMC cut off grants to universities that included the University of Minnesota as a result of the school's divestment policy. The oil company Mobil wrote to the University of Wyoming to protest its divestment rule and reminded the school that it had contributed in the past and employed many of its graduates. Academic boycotts of South Africa can't take sole credit for ending apartheid, but as part of a bigger picture, it's fair to say they helped.
3. FOSSIL FUEL
The same tactics that helped fight apartheid in the 1980s are now being used against climate change: Students are increasingly pressuring schools to pull their money from fossil fuel companies. So far, nine colleges have said they would pursue pulling their investments from fossil fuels. The idea is running into some high-profile opposition, though. In an October statement, Harvard President Drew Faust wrote: "I do not believe, nor do my colleagues on the Corporation, that university divestment from the fossil fuel industry is warranted or wise." Likewise, Ronald D. Liebowitz, president of Middlebury, wrote that the school would not be withdrawing its money from fossil fuels: "Given its fiduciary responsibilities, the board cannot look past the lack of proven alternative investment models, the difficulty and material cost of withdrawing from a complex portfolio of investments, and the uncertainties and risks that divestment would create."
A mathematician at Cambridge is leading a movement to boycott Elsevier, the Dutch academic publishing company behind such journals as Cell and The Lancet. A blog post in 2012 by Timothy Gowers started things off, and other academics have since joined in. Among the complaints: The company charges too much, unfairly bundles publications to force libraries into buying titles they don't want, and opposes open access to government funded research. A spokesman for Elsevier says that Gowers' complaints are mistaken. MIT professor Hal Abelson, an advocate of open publishing, was among those who signed the pledge to stay away from Elsevier. The University of Arizona even held a lecture called "Scholarly Publishing Conversations: What Happens After You Boycott Elsevier?" A year after his initial post, Gowers wrote: "To summarize, we believe that the boycott has been a success and should be continued. Further success will take time and effort, but there are simple steps that we can all take: making our papers freely available, and supporting new and better publication models when they are set up."
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