Despite controversy surrounding the plans, Duke has agreed to host the fourth National Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) on October 15-17, citing principles of free speech and a commitment to providing an environment for the safe and open airing of controversial ideas.
Hosting the event does not imply that the university endorses the views expressed, says John Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations. "Rather, it reaffirms our commitment to academic freedom, a core value embraced by President Brodhead, our board of trustees, and other leaders of our university."
The controversy began in July when an announcement that Duke would host the conference was posted on the PSM's website. In response, an online petition drive, aimed at persuading Brodhead to deny permission for the conference to be held on campus, was organized by at least one pro-Israel organization. By late July, the petition had attracted more than 2,000 signatures.
Officials from the student-affairs office met with representatives from Hiwar, the Duke student group organizing the conference, to make certain that they comply with all university procedures. Past conferences at other universities have attracted protests and demonstrations, and the Hiwar students agreed to continue to meet regularly with Duke officials to ensure that the conference would be held in a safe, orderly, and secure environment.
"We've been told that these previous conferences examined issues involving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and called upon colleges and universities to divest the stock they hold in companies doing business with Israel," Burness says.
"Obviously, such discussions are controversial and have the potential to evoke strong responses from many sides. Indeed, like the three universities that hosted the conference previously, Duke has already received numerous messages from people urging it to reject the conference, as well as from others expressing support for the event."
Duke's Freeman Center for Jewish Life issued a statement expressing dismay that the PSM conference had not condemned terrorism and had tacitly endorsed terror as a legitimate tool. The statement also urged the campus community to use the occasion as a learning opportunity, and noted that "attempts to block the conference not only are unlikely to succeed, but will draw more attention to the conference and its messages."
The hope, says Burness, is to "provide an educational moment for our community by focusing attention on one of the most important issues of our time, about which there are many conflicting opinions on our campus and across the world. The conference also will help remind us why universities have such a special role to play in encouraging the open debate and free speech that undergird our democracy."