This post is a version of a presentation to the University of Edinburgh HE Research Group webinar on 26th January 2022
We are all aware of the current legislation going through parliament which is announced as necessary to protect academic freedom. Unfortunately, the government has misread the problem and presented the wrong solution. The threats to academic freedom are largely as a consequence of other government agendas.
- Research funding – when the government sets priorities for research councils, and there is pressure to obtain grants, can this ensure the integrity of research? How can you pursue unfettered enquiry when hampered by policy which distorts academic priorities?
- Marketisation and consumer-driven teaching which ensure that there is constant instability and universities cannot plan, must constantly adjust their academic priorities to please a capricious audience of 18-year-olds.
- Casualisation of the workforce which means that probably half of academic staff have no autonomy to plan their careers or research programs.
- The prioritisation of STEM – and the consequential closure of departments of modern languages, history, archaeology in rapid succession through 2020 and 2021.
- Where departments are closed, academics are displaced from important chains of dependence and responsibility. These are academic ecosystems.
These threats are the result of political interference with what is still proclaimed as the autonomy of universities. But it is not enough for this government, and other authoritarian governments across the world, to try and wrest control of the curriculum, research, organisation and financing of universities; they seem determined to see that ideological control is strengthened.
This assault on university autonomy does not seem to concern the kind of media outlets which protest the loudest about freedom of speech. Highest on the scale of media attention in 2020-2021 was the case of Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. Her resignation followed a period during which she claimed she had been made to feel a pariah on campus after expressing her views on trans people and gender recognition. She espouses the position that human beings cannot change sex because their chromosomal composition remains the same as at birth. This has always seemed to me a non-argument, especially as what is being contested is legislation regarding the rights of an individual to validate their own gender recognition. If proponents of this viewpoint respect trans rights, then exactly what alternative is being proposed? And if you don’t want to make trans people feel excluded and vilified – why bring it up? The arguments are presented as defending the gains feminists have won for women, and which must now, inexplicably, be safeguarded against those women they suspect of gaining false entry. Their position might have some flawed logic if trans men were regarded with similar scepticism, but for some reason, the female-to-male transition escapes the kind of panic and contestation visited on trans women. Having an illogical and inconsistent viewpoint is no excuse for making an academic unwelcome on campus, but at the same time, she must expect those whose existence she has contested, to fight back with visible evidence of their presence. Articulating a moral disclaimer that ‘all trans people share legal rights to be free of violence, discrimination and harm’ hardly seems to outweigh the invitation to discrimination that her views present.
And that is the dilemma universities face. Universities are bound to defend academic freedom, but at the same time, equalities law means that they must take responsibility for an environment in which many diverse groups can flourish and have an indisputable right to belong. This duty appears to offend Stock, as reported in Times Higher:
“Universities have been told they have to go beyond the law and actively embody EDI which creates an intensely moralising atmosphere,” said Professor Stock, who said this agenda’s inclusion into promotion structures “incentivises people to become very moralised”.
What on earth does this mean? Is she really recommending that universities should have policies which are mere legally-mandated window dressing, but adopt a tacit agreement to violate them in practice?
The trouble is, even when challenged and invalidated, these regressive ideas on gender, race and equality take on a life of their own by dint of repetition and broadcast. They are celebrated as contrarian and anti-woke by high profile politicians and provocative thinkers like Toby Young, Rod Liddle, Frank Furedi, Germaine Greer and all the others who claim to be silenced even in the face of frequent invitations to grandstand on programs like The Moral Maze, Newsnight, Hardtalk and in papers like The Spectator, The Times and the Telegraph.
At the same time, another theorist, postcolonial scholar, Priya Gopal, has been prohibited from sharing her expertise with civil servants and ministers, precisely because they have been forbidden to entertain critics of government policy. I quote:
‘A Cambridge University academic has called on the universities minister to defend her freedom of speech, after a claim that her invitation to speak to civil servants was cancelled because of a tweet criticising Priti Patel, the home secretary. Prof Priyamvada Gopal, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, and a respected author on British colonial history, had been invited to speak this week to Home Office officials on the links between the department’s policies and recent colonial history, including the Windrush nationality scandal.’
Inconsistency is a frequent theme when we interrogate the self-appointed guardians of academic freedom.
And it’s not just the UK where academic freedom is being infringed by government.
In New Zealand last year, Massey University faced accusations that it had attempted to gag staff through a media commentary policy introduced amid controversial cuts to its science offerings. [https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/nz-academic-freedom-crisis]
Denmark – has seen enforced downsizing of civic universities and ‘attacks by politicians on disciplines such as gender and migration studies. Last year the Danish parliament, including the ruling Social Democratic Party, passed a resolution against “excessive activism” in some academic fields, while funding for the humanities in general has been severely squeezed in recent years.’ [https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/jobs-risk-danes-force-big-city-universities-downsize]
In the US, several states, including Florida, are processing legislation regarding the teaching of critical race theory in schools, such that an individual “should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” CRT has also been an issue in France with the accusation that American theory is infecting European universities.
So to be legitimate, teaching must now be about the prevention of discomfort. Nobody need encounter any evidence which disturbs their own conjectures and dogmas, however implausible. Presumably, this affects not just race, but perhaps also another talisman of anti-scientific thought – evolution. Or vaccines. All of these could be placed beyond scrutiny in what is still Trump’s America.
This is a dangerous turn, but in some ways the right wing has mirrored and parodied the left’s appeals for safe spaces, in their refusal to endure challenge to the legitimacy of their views. The most vocal campaigners are often afraid to face the scrutiny of academics. Eric Lybeck at Manchester University has extended invitations, for civil discussion over YouTube, to several prominent individuals who have been involved in free speech controversy. The wishlist included Adam Tickell, VC of the University of Sussex, Nishan Canagarajah, VC of the University of Leicester of Uni of Leicester, Kathleen Stock, formerly professor at Sussex, Gavin Williamson, former Minister for Education, and Michelle Donelan, Minister for Universities. So far only Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck has come forward.
We have already seen one consequence of this when students at Durham University were recently expected to submit themselves to an offensive, sexist and racist rant from an external speaker when the associate PVC Tim Luckhurst invited Rod Liddle to speak at a college Christmas dinner. Those who peacefully removed themselves were derided as ‘pathetic’.
Worldwide, we see Governments disapproving of and attacking the same subject areas– gender studies, postcolonial studies, race studies. These fields have two things in common: they express a concern with social justice, and they foster critical thinking and so constitute a fortification of democracy. In some cases there has been outright repression – Hong Kong, Brazil and Hungary, for example. But other more democratic governments are also pushing their luck.
In an excellent NY Times opinion piece on rudeness and incivility, Jennifer Finney Boylan asks, ‘So how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone?’ I think progressives (or the woke) need to commit to resistance, but it needs to be based on sustained, informed and rigorous argument. Why wouldn’t we engage in robust debate? We cannot shelter behind university policies which appear to validate positions of justice and inclusion because, at the end of the day, managers may be tempted to cave to government pressure and the fear of ‘reputational damage’. And so, as well as taking on an organised right wing, we need to show resilience in the face of internally-applied pressures.
So we need to be prepared to do those media interviews and to debate views we would rather not encounter, as long as they are lawful. To step forward to community engagement. I’m have spoken at W.I. meetings about gender and trans issues. Universities are targets in an era of authoritarian populism and this calls all academics to be activists. Of course, this term has also been denigrated by those who are hostile to intellectuals. We need to gain respect and credibility by doing what the right-wing do – repeat, repeat, repeat – the difference being that we must fortify it with evidence. It is a heavy burden for academics but is is essential we step forward and counter arguments which are false and damaging.