President Orla Feely releases statement on the Gazan crisis and fails to clarify UCD’s position

Image Credit: University College Dublin

President Orla Feely has released a much-anticipated statement on the Gazan crisis and refused to speak on behalf of the university.

On Monday morning, in a statement addressed to all UCD students and employees, President Orla Feely responded to the UCD Students’ Union and Academics for Palestine’s demands for a clarification of her, and by extension, the university’s stance on the ongoing humanitarian crisis unfolding in Gaza. Her statement will be read out loud during the second on-campus Palestinian support rally held by UCSU and Academics for Palestine and the next step of their collaborative protest will be decided democratically. The UCDSU has since 2018 been a staunch supporter of the BDS campaign (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) which supports the liberation of the state of Palestine. 

President Orla Feely’s approach to the situation was both vague and all-encompassing as she failed to declare any sort of definite allegiance to either side engaged in the crisis: “UCD is committed to supporting all staff and students to feel safe and supported in their learning, work and wider engagement at our University”. 

She notably cited “dignity, civility, and mutual respect” as the modus operandi both UCD staff and students ought to follow at a “time of division and polarisation in the wider world.”

She also referred readers to both the institution's Bullying and Harassment Policy and Dignity and Respect Support Service but did not pronounce herself on which cohort of students might be most needing of these services. 

Finally, the President urged readers to reach out to the Estates Services on campus, should they need to provide assistance or report issues. Student testimonies shared with The University Observer revealed that multiple attempts by students to hang up posters or flags in support of Palestine on the UCD campus were either not permitted or the posters were torn down in the days following their installation. Stories previously published by The University Observer cite two separate incidents directly involving Estate Services: specifically, the removal of posters for the LGBTQ+ society Lavender Ball in April 2023 and the continuous failure to remove xenophobic posters last summer. UCD Estates were contacted about both incidents and have yet to give a comment at this time. 

In response to the UCDSU and Academics for Palestine’s requests to take a position, President Feely explained: “It is not my policy to express my position on behalf of UCD in respect of geopolitical issues.” She continues: “Were it our practice to take an institutional position on geopolitical matters, we would be inhibiting the freedom of members of our community to express their individual positions and suppressing our ability to sustain and respect a diversity of views.” She foregrounds her thinking in the findings of the Kalven Report of the University of Chicago. The report filed in 1967 by the Kalven Committee cemented the University’s commitment to the academic and ideological freedom of faculty and students while emphasizing institutional neutrality on geopolitical issues.

She rounds off her statement that her “reluctance to issue a statement on geopolitical matters should not be interpreted as indifference to suffering but [...] a path to focusing on the responsibilities of the University and maintaining [...] an inclusive intellectual community where civil discourse on divisive issues is possible.”

The statement, which was received by UCD staff and students this morning has garnered mixed reactions and left many to draw comparisons with the university’s treatment of the war in Ukraine. 

Below are examples of email correspondence sent to the all-student email in 2022 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

"Dear Students, 

If you are affected by the recent events in Ukraine, please make contact with us so we can offer you assistance. Reach out to your Head of School or other academic staff member and we will help in any way we can."

"Finally, we have been reaching out directly to those members of the UCD Student Community who have been impacted by the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine. Our student advisors are available to all students, so if you, or someone you know needs support, please do connect with the Student Adviser team or other student supports as appropriate". 

"The College will be making a contribution of €5,000 to the Irish Red Cross to help those in Ukraine. Schools and units around the College may also be organizing coffee mornings to raise additional funds that can be added to the College donation. Finally, there are students and staff from Ukraine, and I urge you to support them, to offer them compassion, and to understand what they might be going through at this time".

Speaking to The University Observer, students, who have chosen to remain anonymous, have expressed understanding that President Orla Feely was not in office when Russia invaded Ukraine and is entitled to have a different approach to geopolitical instability during her mandate. However, they consider that “support of Western neutrality is a form of academic complicity”. 

The University Observer will update this story after the response of the UCDSU and Academics for Palestine. The University Observer has reached out to President Orla Feely for comment and will update this story with any further updates.