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University leaders cautious about commenting on political issues

Image: Rachel Magee for Research Professional News

EUA conference: Speakers say they remark publicly only on matters that directly impact their institutions

University leaders are increasingly adopting the stance that they should comment publicly only on matters that directly affect their institutions, judging by speakers at the European University Association’s annual conference.

Rectors and vice-chancellors have often reacted publicly to global events, such as natural disasters. But the Israel-Hamas war and its divisive nature have changed how universities are responding to international crises, delegates were told at the EUA conference in Swansea, Wales, on 11 April.

Santiago Iñiguez de Onzoño (pictured left), president of IE University in Madrid, said his institution used to publicly react to global events such as last year’s earthquake in Morocco. But the Israel-Hamas war has “changed things”.

He said his university decided a few months ago that its leadership should stop making statements on matters that do not impact the university.

“It is better to speak up…whenever something is at stake for the university,” he said.

He emphasised that his beliefs around staying silent on political issues apply only to the university leadership. The university and its academics still have a role in “changing the world” by sharing expertise and opinions more generally.

Drawing the line

Luciana Vaccaro (pictured centre), rector of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland, also said she draws a line by taking stances only on political matters that impact the university.

“I am the rector of everybody at our university. It should be a safe place for every student, and every student needs to be welcomed. So I cannot start quarrelling on points that are so divisive,” she said.

While she said she would remain silent on the Israel-Hamas war, Vaccaro said she has a role in facilitating debate and understanding of the conflict among students.

To illustrate how she draws the line, she gave the example of Switzerland joining the EU’s research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe, as a topic on which she is “happy to have a position”. Vaccaro has been an outspoken advocate for Switzerland joining the scheme.

But debate over whether Switzerland should join the EU is a “matter for the politicians”, she said.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe