Courage and integrity in UK academia

I thought I would start 2017 with some higher education news which has cheered me over the past few weeks. It is not often I offer a shoutout to particular universities or vice-chancellors, but there are two which seem to merit honourable mentions.

Firstly, Birmingham City University appears to be resisting the trend towards course offerings which are exclusively vocational. The new BA (Hons.) Black Studies looks very likely to transform the intellectual climate at the university, but also across the sector. We see the closure of too many university courses which foster real fearless critical thinking, and so to see modules like Black Political Activism, Black Feminism, and Power and Inequality and others which set out to challenge racism and interrogate intersectionality is really gratifying. It is a courageous riposte to the constant condemnation of courses which invite students to challenge prevailing power structures. And it stands in clear defiance of the prospect of being monstered by the Daily Mail, hostile generally to universities, but particularly to new scholarly formations which could disturb the complacency of their predominantly white readership.

Another new project at Birmingham City University is the launch on 26th January 2017 of the Centre for Brexit Studies. The website will reflect both Leave and Remain perspectives, and aims to ‘further enhance understanding of the consequences of the UK withdrawing from the European Union (EU)’. It also promises events and resources which will be accessible to local businesses and to civic society. Furthermore, knowing the turgid bureaucracy of university research and curriculum committees, I can only marvel at and admire the speed with which BCU has brought together researchers on a key emerging issue in such a timely manner. This is probably what other vice-chancellors imagine when they evoke that familiar conceit ‘fleetness of foot’. Both of the new BCU ventures embody exactly what a civic university should be doing: facilitating and developing the research ambitions of its academics, opening up  the debates, and harnessing that scholarship in the service of the local and global community.

My other garland is destined for Adam Tickell, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex. Yesterday (17th January 2017) saw the publication of a report whose conclusions found that the university failed in its duty of care towards a student who was assaulted and left unconscious by a member of academic staff with whom she was in a relationship. It was Professor Tickell’s first act in post to order an independent review of the incident, and he has faithfully tweeted each press report of the outcome. More importantly he has apologised to the victim of the attack.

On the one hand, the report signals an indictment of the university which, it appears, interviewed only the assailant before assuring themselves he need not be suspended from duty. On the other hand, an admission of fault over an incident of such consequence to the university’s reputation is almost unprecedented. We live in an era when most universities would hasten to bury bad news, at all costs. Thank you, Adam Tickell, for restoring my faith in the integrity of (some) universities.

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