On 29 January, 113 scholars from the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine (GHSM) sent an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor and President of King’s College London (KCL), Shitij Kapur, concerning the ongoing crisis in Gaza.
The letter, separate from the one sent last week, criticises the University’s “neutral stance” towards the ongoing violence in Gaza, arguing that “this is diametrically opposed to the institutions’ [sic] moral stance, which proclaims to ‘make the world a better place’.”
It was signed by students and academics of all levels. Though most are based in the Department of GHSM, there were also signatories from IoPPN, War Studies, and Education.
“As global health and social medicine scholars, we find it outrageous that our academic institution, King’s College London, is refusing to publicly acknowledge the atrocities and intentional destruction of Palestinians and Gaza.”Extract from the open letter sent by global health and social medicine scholars to Shitij Kapur
The demands of the letter are similar to its predecessors from both students and staff, namely to “call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire” and to “end collaborations with and investments in institutions, including universities, complicit with the state of Israel’s violence”.
However, it also urges the University to “engage with and support organisations providing medical support to meet the health needs of Gazans”, namely through “[allocating] funds to and [collaborating] with Palestinian hospitals and universities”.
In addition, the letter asks Professor Kapur to “acknowledge and address that the current KCL stance has created a climate of fear of speaking freely about the genocide among the KCL students and staff community”.
Professor Hanna Kienzler, one of the signatories, stated that “as academics working in the field of global health and social medicine, [they] have an obligation to speak out in the face of injustice, war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide”.
“Students and several staff members have told us that the silence was suffocating them and that they felt scared to speak out. The spaces we created for reflection, learning and organising have been welcomed by many.”Professor Hanna Kienzler
She highlighted that there are “direct links” to GSHM academics’ work, also. Professor Kienzler’s own research focuses on “the impact of war on mental health” and she has “worked since [sic] over a decade in the occupied Palestinian territory with long-term collaborations at the Institute of Community and Public Health at Birzeit University”.
This is not the first time that Professor Kienzler has criticised the University’s response openly. In December 2023, she criticised the University’s lack of response to the “genocidal violence”.
“Making the world a better place requires taking a stance and siding clearly and unwaveringly on the side of human rights, unapologetically striving for social justice, and denouncing, in the strongest terms, ethnic cleansing and genocide.”Extract from the open letter sent by Global Health and Social Medicine scholars to Shitij Kapur
Professor Rachel Mills, Senior Vice President (Academic), has since responded to the open letter on behalf of Professor Kapur. In her reply, she outlines that the role of the University “is to offer a safe, welcoming and supportive environment for all [students and staff]”.
She adds: “We must also promote and safeguard academic freedom and freedom of expression within the law. These obligations make it inappropriate for us as an institution to take a political stance on the conflict, in line with our broader institutional position of value-based impartiality on sensitive and geo-political events and issues.”
The Academic Board Agenda from 13 December 2023 defines value-based impartiality as “not, as some may see it, an act of omission – but an active matter of principled restraint”.
Professor Mills also invited signatories to meet with herself, Professor Richard Trembath and Robin McIver, “to discuss the health concerns” that were raised in the letters.
Professor Kienzler states that “Students need to demand that their university, which boasts the slogan ‘to make the world a better place’, actually makes the world a better place by taking a stance, calling for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, partnering with and financing Palestinian organisations to rebuild Gaza, its education system and health system, and ending collaborations with and investments in institutions, including universities, complicit with the state of Israel’s violence.
“Demanding an end to genocide is a collective effort.”