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Don’t boycott U.S. academic conferences, U of T prof urges

Drawing on post-Tiananmen Square experiences, Ruth Hayhoe says it’s better to engage with U.S. colleagues.


As professors and graduate students across Canada soon head into conference season, many are reconsidering their plans to attend academic events in the United States. As of February 7, more than 6,200 scholars have signed an online petition calling for a boycott of international conferences in the U.S. until their colleagues from seven blacklisted countries are free to attend.

They are responding to the January 27 executive order by U.S. President Donald Trump that bans citizens of seven majority Muslim countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Libya and Somalia) from entering the U.S. The ban is currently suspended by the courts, but the legal battle continues and the president vows to reinstate the order.

However, Ruth Hayhoe, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto, has not added her name to the list. Instead, the former director of the Hong Kong Institute for Education has issued her own statement, encouraging colleagues not to isolate U.S. academics. Dr. Hayhoe writes: “I have the greatest respect for the motivation of those who sign. At the same time I think it is important to think of ways we can join in solidarity with our American colleagues, many of whom are taking brave action to oppose the current policies of their government.”

For Dr. Hayhoe, the decision to boycott is one she has faced before. In early 1989, Dr. Hayhoe was offered a position in the Canadian embassy in Beijing as Canada’s first secretary of education and culture. But, on June 4 of that year, just months before she took up the post, the bloody crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square rocked the country. In response, the global community stepped away from their diplomatic relations with China through boycotts and sanctions.

When Dr. Hayhoe arrived in Beijing that August, the embassy she entered was a quiet place. No high level visits from Canadian politicians were scheduled and trade missions virtually stopped. Dr. Hayhoe faced a difficult choice: should she follow the path of other embassies and limit her operations, or should she advocate for more resources and expand Canada’s cultural and educational programs?

In the end, “our government actually increased activities in cultural and educational exchange from 1989 to 1992 because the students and artists were the victims,” Dr. Hayhoe says. She felt that supporting Chinese civil society was the surest path to reopening the country. But, those three years, until Deng Xiaoping declared China open to the world, were dark days, she says.

During that time, the Canada-China scholars exchange program continued to fund scholar mobility between the two countries and a faculty enrichment program which had brought 20 Chinese academics to Canada each year was expanded to accommodate more than 50.  On the ground in China, Dr. Hayhoe built a network of Canadian studies centres in Chinese universities and initiated “Canada week” television events in various cities.

She says some of their best work happened during those trips. “We really did people-to-people cultural relations. We worked away from Beijing and traveled around the country to meet the people. I even tried to find out what had happened to some of the student protesters.” The network reached across China, she says, and offered a space for academics who had been censured for their role in the protests.

Dr. Hayhoe says she hopes her experiences in China offer some perspective for academics who are looking for a meaningful way to both stand against President Trump’s policies and support their colleagues in the U.S. While there is certainly a place for boycotts, people-to-people meetings can be a powerful venue for change and a lifeline for restricted academics, she says. They provide a chance to join resistance movements on the inside and hear their stories firsthand. “Find out what [U.S. scholars] are doing, get a deeper understanding of the response on university campuses and see this as a lesson in the democratic process,” she says.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of leadership, higher and adult education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto.

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  1. Julia Christensen Hughes, University of Guelph / February 9, 2017 at 16:20

    I recently attended two international conferences for business school deans, first one in Slovenia and then one in the US. The travel ban was just being announced as I left Pearson and during the course of my flight I contemplated cancelling the US leg of my journey. In Europe, Trump was a constant topic of discussion by speakers and delegates alike. In Bled, signatories to the UN’s Principles of Responsible Management Education crafted a public response, renewed our commitment to principles of inclusion & the UN’s sustainable development goals, and made preliminary plans to alter the focus, format & location of future conferences (in support of a more inclusive agenda).

    Ultimately, I did decide to travel to the US. Ironically, the pre-conference session I had agreed to help facilitate was “Deans as Agents of Change”, within the context of promoting sustainable and ethical business practices and leaders. Given this focus, I thought it more important than ever to be there. No doubt, US politics and the impact of Trump’s declarations were raised much less frequently and much less comfortably than they had been in Europe, and when they were, it was often Canadian deans and international delegates who voiced concern. I’m still processing the experience.

    While I was away, I also watched with great interest as members of disciplinary communities within the Academy of Management communicated in no uncertain terms their objection to the public statement made by the Academy, believing it did not go nearly far enough in condemning recent events. It will be interesting to see to what extent management scholars boycott the annual conference this summer. Ultimately, I believe there is strength in both approaches. For those who opt to attend, hopefully they will add their voices to discussions on social justice, inclusion, politics, ethics, leadership and change – both within and outside formal sessions. For those who stay away, they send an important message of standing with others (colleagues and students alike) who may not have the choice to make.

  2. W / February 10, 2017 at 09:22

    I have to say the example in China is different from our current situation.

    During that time, Chinese, or people who were physically in China, were those who were actually influenced by the political movement.

    However, for today, those who are in the U.S., or in another word, who are able to go to U.S. for conferences, are not influenced by the ban at all. By going to conferences, we are not supporting those who are kept outside of U.S., we only show that there won’t be any changes in the academia even when there are people from these seven countries who are silenced. Unless the conferences have provided full support to ensure those who can’t be on site still have access to their sessions, like set up Skype etc. But to be honest, I haven’t see any of this until right now while I’m typing this.

    It always make me sad that when we talk about boycotting U.S. conferences, the focus of our conversations is the rights of those who can travel to U.S. without any obstacle. We were talking about how not going to the U.S. reduces the learning opportunities of those who are at the conferences. The great irony is that as soon as it comes to ourselves, we forget about them.

  3. Andrew Gow / February 15, 2017 at 13:27

    This is a positive response to bad news, and I appreciate Dr. Hayhoe’s point of view. However, it ignores a few differences. The (currently suspended) travel ban did not come down hardest on American students, activists, or academics, and they do not need our help or assistance at the moment. It’s not like we would provide them with some kind of vital lifeline or contact to the outside world! Further, China did not, after Tiananmen, ban entry to specific groups. Many of our colleagues (and of my own students) would not be allowed into the United States under the terms of Trump’s ban. I will not visit, spend money, or in any way participate in normalizing a place from which some of my colleagues and students are banned. I think we should all cancel academic-professional travel to the United States until it is clear what the current administration plans to do (though in the ban’s abeyance at the current moment, it makes sense to fulfil existing commitments). There is also the issue of privacy rights, which the current administration has stripped from foreign nationals: I will not hand over passwords to electronic devices at any border.

  4. Christine Mitchell / February 15, 2017 at 14:48

    With the greatest respect to Dr Hayhoe, the situation is not the same as post-Tiananmen China, as other commenters have noted. In the current moment, I choose to be in solidarity with those who cannot travel freely, and to reject my own privilege as a white Canadian woman. The fact that my current research involves the study of ancient Iran is just an added reason to look elsewhere for places to share my work.

  5. Aryan Karimi, University of Alberta / February 22, 2017 at 14:02

    Dr. Hayhoe’s view is deeply disappointing. As members of academia, at least those of us in social sciences and humanities, we are well familiar with power relations, inequalities, and ethical urges to resist and support civil rights.
    First, it is interesting that Dr. Hayhoe is comparing China of four decades ago, a marginalized nation in global context, with the U.S. as the world’s “top dog”. While boycotting China excluded those residing inside China and contributed to their further marginalization from academia, world politics, and global markets, boycotting conferences in the U.S., and I emphasize “conferences” not the whole nation-state, does not contribute to marginalization of scholars residing in the U.S., except for those scholars from the 7 “doomed” countries who cannot leave the U.S., since most of American scholars have the freedom and ability (class, racial, nationality, etc.) to travel elsewhere and participate in academic activities.
    Second, any decision in boycotting conferences held in the U.S. should be in context of solidarity with those banned from attending, and should be understood as a sign of resistance to global structural inequalities not as actions to marginalize certain groups. It would be interesting to see if Dr. Hayhoe, and those supporting her views, would hold same opinions on boycotting conferences once their rights to mobility and participation in academia is taken from them on any grounds including gender, nationality, ethnicity, etc?
    Dr. Hayhoe’s inability in recognizing such visible differences in drawing on historical cases in presenting her argument, is indeed thought-provoking and should not be left unattended since such views are detrimental to future of our schools, students, and politics.