Academics Mull Boycott of U.S. Conferences as a Way of Fighting Travel Ban

January 30, 2017

Some faculty members are calling for a boycott of academic conferences in the United States in reaction to an executive order, signed on Friday by President Trump, that bars citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.

A petition circulating online has drawn the signatures of hundreds of academics around the world.

“We the undersigned take action in solidarity with those affected by Trump’s executive order by pledging not to attend international conferences in the U.S. while the ban persists,” the petition says. “We question the intellectual integrity of these spaces and the dialogues they are designed to encourage while Muslim colleagues are explicitly excluded from them.”

Academic boycotts have mostly made news in recent years in connection with proposed boycotts of Israeli institutions over that country's treatment of Palestinians. Other boycotts have focused on host hotels enmeshed in labor disputes or states that have enacted controversial laws. But academic groups have often found it difficult to agree on taking political stands.

Max Weiss, an associate professor of history and Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a signer of the petition, said in an interview that “academic boycott is one of the few resources that intellectuals and academics have for expressing their opposition to policies of a given government.”

Emery Berger, a professor of information and computer sciences at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said he had heard discussions of relocating or banning conferences set to be held in the United States. Mr. Berger, who is involved in two subgroups of the Association for Computing Machinery, an international organization that runs many computer-science conferences, said members were discussing ways to lessen the effects of the travel ban.

“Science is intended to be free and open, and any place that restricts the travel of scientists to present their work is a problem,” Mr. Berger said. “We are talking about taking steps to mitigate this problem however we can.” He said he suspected other disciplines were having similar discussions.

He’s heard some academics call for a complete ban on conferences in the United States, until the order is lifted, Mr. Berger said. But, he pointed out, some academics from the seven targeted countries are based at American colleges and universities. If conferences were all moved abroad, those U.S.-based scholars might not be able to attend for fear they would be barred from re-entering the country.

Mr. Berger said some academics were exploring the idea of allowing presenters who cannot travel to participate by videoconference. Another idea, he said, is to spread out conferences geographically.

Helen McCarthy, a historian at Queen Mary University of London, posed the question to Twitter:

Here's a selection of responses:

Shannon Najmabadi writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and educational quality.