Category Archives: Freedom of speech

The real threats to academic freedom

Image: Fond vecteur créé par createvil – fr.freepik.com

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.

‘I’ve got to leave old Durham town’

Featured image: Theo Burman

In universities our perennial Christmas gift to each other is an intensification of the culture wars.

At Durham University, UK, Tim Luckhurst, the Associate Pro Vice Chancellor and Principal of South College, berated students who walked out of a formal Christmas dinner when they realised the speaker was Rod Liddle. Liddle is a ‘controversial’ journalist who has written disparagingly in his Spectator columns about women, trans people and Black people. Some students who stayed on to listen were, reportedly, offended by his remarks. Below is The Guardian’s report on the events of December 3rd.

According to the student newspaper Palatinate, Liddle’s speech began with him expressing disappointment there were no sex workers there that night, in reference to a recent controversy over safety training offered by the university to student sex workers. According to the report, he said the left railed against “science or pure facts”, by reference to people with a “long, dangling penis”, and claimed colonialism was not “remotely the major cause of Africa’s problems, just as it is very easy to prove that the educational underachievement of British people of Caribbean descent or African Americans is nothing to do with institutional or structural racism.”

Luckhurst then compounded his poor judgement by confronting the students who had withdrawn from the dinner, accompanied by commentary from his wife, Dorothy Luckhurst. A good video record and analysis can be viewed here. Luckhurst was irked that the students did not share his taste for obnoxious sophomoric humour – a matter which might have been resolved had he consulted them. His wife seemed even more outraged and contemptuous. On Twitter she posted this: ‘Bunch of inadequates thought it was clever to walk out on a speech tonight because they were afraid of what the speaker said…’

A quick scan of her Twitter timeline (it has since been taken down) indicates support for Toby Young, Priti Patel and Claire Fox. As you might expect, another of the Spiked crew, Frank Furedi, is in sympathy with the Luckhursts.

Frank Furedi (@Furedibyte) Tweeted: I wish Tim has stuck to his gun. What's wrong with describing the pathetic behaviour of students, pathetic? Of course I understand the enormous pressure that he faced for airing uncomfortable truths. https://t.co/ewP1YCBHhi https://twitter.com/Furedibyte/status/1468152955513806849?s=20

The whole event, and Luckhurst’s part in it, is now the subject of an internal investigation. It will surely consider the Office for Students Prevent guidance on properly assessing an external speaker’s risk to public order, and the likelihood of incitement to hatred or obscenity (including the manner of expression). Durham University’s policy states:

All external speaker events must be assessed along the following guidelines.

a) whether the views or ideas to be put forward (or the manner of their expression):

i) discriminate against any individual or group (with a protected characteristic) on any of the grounds of discrimination provided in the Equality Act 2010. Formal requests for gender segregation at meetings (save for those solely used for religious worship or practice) is prohibited on these grounds in accordance with the Equality and Human Rights Commission guidance[3];

ii) are to be presented by any person who has previously been prevented from delivering a speech at the University; or

iii) incite hatred or are considered within the law to be obscene or grossly defamatory.

I wasn’t at the dinner, but the reports evidence content which might contravene the university’s policy, and we wonder if the risk was properly assessed, knowing what we do about Liddle’s inclination for expressing his views on women, girls, Black and LGBT people.

At this point, allow me a digression from a linguistic point of view that I hope adds clarity to this episode. Tim Luckhurst’s behaviour towards the students, caught on video, was contemptuous and hostile. As a member of the senior management team of the university, and principal of the college, he wields considerable institutional power which he has mishandled. He expected the students to indulge his choice of speaker without protest (apparently, the JCR was not consulted). He saw the withdrawal of a dozen or so students as a repudiation, not just of his choice, but of free speech. The students, on the other hand, objected to being a captive audience for an offensive and obscene tirade. This is summarised by Will Jennings @drjennings on Twitter who wrote: ‘The Durham/Rod Liddle affair is a perfect example of how a very large number of people incorrectly equate freedom of speech with freedom to gratuitously offend and troll’.

In linguistics, we would weigh the appropriacy of speech/ discourse as a function of audience design and context. The Durham event was, as indicated by the dress code, a formal occasion. The context was a university college dinner, and so we might rightfully expect a degree of decorum, which need not preclude humour. Another aspect which would determine the expectations is what has happened at previous dinners – were speakers invited, by whom, and what etiquette was observed?

Whether the Principal submitted the Prevent paperwork 7 days before the event, as mandated by the university, is irrelevant. Rod Liddle was his friend and he must have known of his reputation as a provocateur, liable to cause offence. To subject students to that performance must be considered a lapse of judgement and quite possible negligent in his duty of care. I‘m aware of all the issues with the Prevent policy, but on this occasion, it seems to me to uphold a rather old-fashioned value of politeness and considerateness, If you are meeting people you don’t know, on a formal occasion, most of us would try not to violate norms of appropriacy. There were students there from many different backgrounds and cultures, and some would be uncomfortable with public discussion of sexuality. Let’s be clear. This is not an example of cancel culture, nor does the incident have a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. It was not an argument about academic opinions or interpretation of evidence. This was an intentional wind up, an in-your-face confrontation with what many found to be vulgar, obscene and offensive material.

In an excellent 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?’  It’s a world where anti-mask scofflaws walk unchallenged around the supermarket and where Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks it is cute to pose with a gun next to pictures of left-wing, Black and Muslim members of Congress. It’s no wonder that a recent Axios poll showed that young Democrats in the US are unlikely to date or befriend a Trump supporter. This is seen, predictably, by the right wing as further evidence of liberal refusal to engage with opposing viewpoints. But why would you want to enter into a relationship with someone who is comfortable with white supremacy, forced childbirth and attacks on democracy itself ?

The incident at Durham is an example of the right behaving like adolescents; they want to stick it to the woke libtards, they want to scorn everything they value, but we are not their parents, and we don’t have to love them. Durham should be celebrating those students whose good judgement and clarity of thought saw them walk out in the face of a deliberate effort to offend.

It is accidental that my last post was on emotional labour among university managers. Tim Luckhurst may be unencumbered in that department, but I suggest he has a think about what respectful and mature engagement looks like. A good mantra I saw on social media: Is it truthful; is it necessary; is it kind. No, Tim. None of these applied, and you should have known better. I’ll have more to say on academic freedom and civility, but it is clearly time for the guardrails to be renegotiated on the axes of power, respect, decency, appropriacy and just a little thought for those who might not share your preferences.

Academic freedom is in crisis; free speech is not

This post was first published on the CDBU blog on April 6th 2021.

In August 2020, the UK think tank The Policy Exchange produced a report on Academic Freedom in the UK, alleging a chilling effect for staff and students expressing conservative opinions, particularly pro-Brexit or ‘gender critical’ ideas. This is an issue that was examined by a 2018 parliamentary committee on Human Rights which found a lack of evidence for serious infringements of free speech. In a university context, freedom of speech is protected under the Human Rights Act 1998 as long as the speech is lawful and does not contravene other university regulations on issues like harassment, bullying or inclusion. Some of these controversies have been firmly rebutted by Chris Parr and others who describe how the incidents have been over-hyped. 

Despite this, the government seems keen to appoint a free speech champion for universities which continues a campaign started by Sam Gyimah when he was minister for universities in 2018, and has been interpreted by some commentators as a ‘war on woke’. In the current climate of threats to university autonomy, many vice chancellors wonder whether this might be followed by heavy fines or reduced funding for those institutions deemed to fall on the wrong side of the culture wars.

While public concern has been directed to an imagined crisis of free speech, there are more significant questions to answer on the separate but related issue of academic freedom. Most university statutes echo legislation and guarantee academics ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’ [Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988]. In reality, these freedoms are surrendered to the greater claims of academic capitalism, government policy, legislation, managers’ responses to the pandemic and more dirigiste approaches to academics’ work. 

Nevertheless, this government is ploughing ahead with policies designed to protect the freedom of speech that is already protected, while doing little to hold university managers to account for their very demonstrable violations of academic freedom. The government is suspicious of courses which declare a sympathy with social justice or which manifest a ‘progressive’ approach. This hostility also extends to critical race theory and black studies. Indeed, the New York Times has identified a right wing ‘Campaign to Cancel Wokeness’  on both sides of the Atlantic, citing a speech by the UK Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, in which she said,  “We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt…Any school which teaches these elements of critical race theory, or which promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.” 

This has now set a tone for ideological oversight which some university leaders seem keen to embrace. Universities will always wish to review their offerings to ensure they reflect academic currency and student choice. However, operating under the cover of emergency pandemic planning, some are now seeking to dismantle what they see as politically troublesome subject areas.

Let’s start with the most egregious and transparent attack on academic freedom. The University of Leicester Business School, known primarily for its disdain of management orthodoxy, has announced it will no longer support research in critical management studies and political economy, and the university has put all researchers who identify with this field, or who at some time might have published in CMS, at risk of redundancy. Among the numerous responses circulating on Twitter, nearly all point to the fact that the critical orientation made Leicester Business School distinctive and attractive to scholars wishing to study and teach there. Among those threatened with redundancy is the distinguished former dean, Professor Gibson Burrell. The sheer volume of protest at this anomaly must be an embarrassment to Leicester management. We should remember that academic freedom means that, as a scholar of proven expertise, you have the freedom to teach and research according to your own judgement. When those in a field critical of structures of power have their academic freedom removed, this is, unarguably, a breach of that expectation. Such a violation should be of concern to the new freedom of speech champion and to the regulator, the Office for Students. 

If the devastation in the School of Business were not enough humiliation for Leicester, in the department of English, there are plans to cancel scholarship and teaching in Medieval and Early Modern literature. The thoughtless stripping out of key areas that give context and coherence within a subject is not unique to Leicester – similar moves have taken place in English at University of Portsmouth.  At Leicester, management have offered the justification that this realignment will allow them to put resources towards the study of gender and sexuality. After all, the Vice Chancellor, Nishan Canagarajah, offered the keynote speech at the Advance HE conference in Equality, Diversity and Inclusion on 19th March  and has signalled that he supports decolonising the curriculum. This might have had more credibility if he was not equally committed to extinguishing critical scholarship in the Business School. The two positions are incompatible and reveal an opportunistic attempt to reduce costs and remove signs of critical scholarship which might attract government disapproval. 

At the University of Birmingham, the response to the difficulties of maintaining teaching during the pandemic has been to issue a ruling that three academic staff must be able to teach each module. The explanation for this apparent reversal of the ‘lean’ principle of staffing efficiency, is to make modules more resilient in the face of challenges like the pandemic – or perhaps strike action. There is a consequence for academic freedom though – only the most familiar, established courses can be taught. Courses that might have been offered, which arise from the current research of the academic staff, will have to be cancelled if the material is not already familiar to other colleagues in the department. It is a way of designing innovation and advancement out of courses at the University of Birmingham. 

Still at Birmingham, UCU is contesting a proposal for a new ‘career framework’ by management characterised as ‘up or out’. It will require newly appointed lecturers to achieve promotion to senior lecturer within five years or face the sort of performance management procedures that could lead to termination of their appointment. The junior academics who enter on these conditions are unlikely to gamble their careers on academic risk-taking or pursue a challenge to an established paradigm. We can only speculate how this apprenticeship in organisational obedience might restrain the pursuit of discovery, let alone achieve the management’s stated aim to “develop and maintain an academic culture of intellectual stimulation and high achievement”. 

Meanwhile at the University of Liverpool, Vice Chancellor Janet Beer is attempting to apply research metrics and measures of research income over a five-year period to select academics for redundancy in the Faculty of Life Sciences. Staff have been threatened with sacking and replacement by those felt to hold more promise. It will be an unwise scholar who chooses a niche field of research which will not elicit prime citations. Astoundingly, university mangers claim that their criteria are not in breach of their status as a signatory to the San Fransisco Declaration on Research Assessment. That is correct insofar as selection for redundancy by grant income is clearly such dishonorable practice as to have been placed beyond contemplation by the international board of DORA.

It seems we are reaching a pivotal moment for academic freedom for higher education systems across the world. In Arkansas and some other states in the USA, there are efforts to prohibit the teaching of social justice.

In France, the education minister has blamed American critical race theory for undermining France’s self-professed race-blindness and for causing the rise of “islamo-gauchisme”, a term which has been cynically deployed to blunt any critique of structural racism.

In Greece, universities are now bound by law to ensure policing and surveillance of university campuses by ‘squads for the protection of universities’ in order to suppress dissent with the Orwellian announcement that the creation of these squads and the extensive surveillance of public Universities are “a means of closing the door to violence and opening the way to freedom” and an assertion that “it is not the police who enter universities, but democracy”.

Conclusion

It occurs to me that those public figures who feel deprived of a platform to express controversial views may well be outnumbered by the scholars whose universities allow their work to be suppressed by targeted intellectual purges, academic totalitarianism and metric surveillance. It is telling that assaults on academic freedom in the UK have not attracted comment or action from the organisations which might be well placed to defend this defining and essential principle of universities. I hereby call on Universities UK, the Office for Students and the freedom of speech champion to insist on an independent audit of academic freedom and autonomy for each higher education institution. 

We now know where intervention into the rights of academics to teach and research autonomously may lead. We also know that many of the candidates targeted for redundancy are UCU trade union officials; this has happened at University of East London and the University of Hull. Make no mistake, this is a PATCO moment for higher education in the UK as management teams try to break union support and solidarity in order to exact greater control in the future.   

Universities are the canary down the mine in an era of right-wing authoritarianism. We must ensure that they can maintain their unique responsibility to protect against the rise of populism and the dismantling of democracy. We must be assertive in protecting the rights of academics whose lawful and reasoned opinions are increasingly subject to some very sinister threats. Academic freedom needs to be fought for, just like the right to protest and the right to roam. That leaves a heavy responsibility for academics if the abolition of autonomy and academic freedom is not to be complete. 

More details of the planned redundancies at the University of Leicester:

Zoom conference on the Leicester Business School redundancies and academic freedom – chaired by Prof. Martin Parker.

Prof. Andrew Timming interviews Prof. Martin Parker on ‘What the hell is going on at Leicester University?’

‘Don’t frighten the students’: the crisis of academic freedom in the managed university

This post appeared first on the Council for the Defence of British Universities (CDBU) blog on April 20th 2020.

When I started my blog, Academic Irregularities , in 2015, I intended to contribute to a conversation within the emerging discipline of critical university studies, which looks at the role of higher education in society, and in particular the power relations at play.

This seemed like a safe enough path to follow. After all, in the UK, academic freedom is guaranteed, and all higher education institutions registered with the Office for Students (OfS) must demonstrate provision for safeguarding it within their statutes of governance. A definition can be found in Section 202 of the Education Reform Act 1988. It states that academics enjoy ‘freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial and unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at their institutions.’

How did we reach the point where university managers have been willing to sacrifice these fundamental ideals? In this report, I’ll try to answer that question – and narrate my own encounter with the forces that threaten to quash any opinion considered inconvenient for those in authority.

What is this thing called managerialism?

The 1980s saw the arrival of New Public Management (NPM) and its close relative New Managerialism (NM) (Deem et al 2007:3; Deem and Brehony 2005) in the public sector in the UK. Managerialism is essentially a belief that all other purposes of an organisation are subordinate to the managerial functions, and that managers need no specialist knowledge of a particular organisation or sector as their skills are generalizable.

Older readers will have noticed a shift in university leadership and management over the course of their careers. Up until the 1980s, roles such as dean or head of department were filled on a rotating basis by senior members of a department. After a fixed term of office, they would return to their teaching and research. This ensured that they themselves would have to experience whatever changes or restructures they wished to enact, once they returned to the faculty. Today, we see career managers in universities; heads of department, deans, pro-vice-chancellors are all substantive appointments. There is usually little mobility back into academic posts. There has been a more formalised stratification of hierarchies in universities with managers seeing themselves as separate from and superior to rank-and-file academics.

This categorical difference is denoted through the use of a new lexicon of entrepreneurship, competition, excellence and change, while the unequal power dynamic is recognizable in new techniques of performance management and measurement of tightly-delimited productivity targets. The managerial project in universities has the aim of restructuring the values, perceptions and behaviours of academics. Essentially, it has driven us into a culture war in which the stakes are respect for knowledge, and academic freedom for citizenship in a liberal democracy versus university as transaction, marketplace, crude metric accountability and the rule of the consumer.

I became fascinated with the opaque discourse that both accompanied and reinforced the changing culture and I started to collect management emails and other communications from a large number of campuses. Here is one prime example:

‘The SMT initiative on Employability is providing OOB with an opportunity to consider enhanced management in the School through use of JOW resource and will therefore extend beyond that specific role to a proposal relating to all transversal management roles in the School (initials changed).’

I attended every management training course I could get admitted to: Leading high performance teams; Gold standard customer service; Change management; Succession planning.

My journey into an ethnographic exploration of managerialism was a huge success, and it didn’t take long to accumulate enough material for a book. Together with an excellent discourse analyst, Professor Helen Sauntson, we began the Academic Irregularities project.  I started to blog critically about my experience as an academic and the changes to our working conditions and practices. My posts included critiques of learning outcomes, the Research Excellence Framework (REF), the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), managerialism, research assessment by metrics and performance management. The blog started to attract readers, and one piece in particular went viral.

On March 10th, 2016, I published a piece entitled ‘The Kindness of Strangers’ in which I recounted an episode in a class in which I had discussed with students, on University Mental Health Day, the stresses associated with toxic managerialism and the resultant breakdown in mental health of so many academics in the UK and universities across the world. With my permission, Times Higher Education republished the piece on their blog (the piece was republished a year later on my blog as Stress Fractures, One Year On.)

This is the story of what happened to that piece, and what happened to me.

Gross misconduct allegations

Five days after posting my blog piece, I received an email at about 8pm. It announced that I was required to attend a meeting the next day with the pro-vice-chancellor (PVC) and Human Resources. I didn’t have to guess what it was about. I had made a calculation in which I had weighed the anticipated extreme authoritarian response alongside my obligation to speak out against a destructive, sector-wide culture which was damaging my colleagues in several institutions.

The piece was well received by its intended audience with supportive comments on Twitter, on my blog and below the line on the Times Higher website. Without exception they confirmed the point I made in the piece, that stress caused by unattainable targets in academia was widespread, and indeed, international. I had not referred to any one institution in the piece.

At the meeting with the PVC and Human Resources three allegations were put to me which were deemed to constitute gross misconduct. The charges were that there had been on my part:

  • Breach of confidentiality regarding the health and wellbeing of colleagues
  • Serious carelessness and negligence in the performance of duties
  • Misuse of media whereby postings made about the university were considered to bring the university into disrepute

The rebuttal

This first meeting with the PVC was intended to be a short interview to allow me to hear the charges against me; however, I wanted to take the opportunity to offer an immediate rebuttal which I thought would enable the university to avoid wasting valuable time and money pursuing a non-issue.

Firstly, I was able to assure the PVC that I had not breached confidentiality as I had not named any particular colleagues in the blog piece. In the face of the PVC’s evident displeasure, I was able to reassure her that there had been 12,000 hits on my blog and it had been trending for four days on the Times Higher website, and judging by the comments and retweets, she was the first person to find a fault with it. Nevertheless, the PVC demanded that I ask the Times Higher to take the piece down and also delete it from my own blog, Academic Irregularities.

Secondly, it became clear that management had formed the impression (on the basis of no evidence or enquiry) that I had abandoned the day’s plan for the class and instead forced the students to endure a digression into a private grievance about working conditions. Notwithstanding my legal right to teach autonomously, this is not what had taken place. I was visiting a sick colleague’s class to explain to the students (with my colleague’s express permission) the cause of their lecturer’s stress-related illness and convey to them the arrangements I would be making for immediate covering of the remainder of classes during the semester. The conversation that emerged was fully commensurate with that purpose. No reasonable person could charge that I had been neglectful of students as my immediate concern was to safeguard uninterrupted continuation of their teaching, and this was achieved. In doing so, I had also ensured that the university would not risk incurring complaints from the affected students.

Lastly, I had evidence in the form of an email exchange between me and a Times Higher sub editor which included a clear request from me not to edit the piece so as to seem that stress in academia is a localised problem. I emphasised that this is widespread nationally and even internationally. I had not identified the institution at which I worked. None of the readers who responded in comments under the line or on my blog had mentioned my employer or any other academic institution. Consequently, there could be no possibility of reputation damage. I had been identified as author of the piece, and my institutional affiliation, but this was merely house style by Times Higher and indicated only that the author could claim knowledge of the higher education context.

Despite this clear rebuttal, I found myself in the grip of a twelve-week disciplinary process whose charges, seemingly, could not be halted by clear, exculpatory evidence. Furthermore, for the duration, I was forbidden to write more on the topic of academics, stress and mental health, and also prohibited from discussing the disciplinary process with any other person than my union representative. This was designed to bring my writing to a halt and to isolate me professionally and personally.

Disciplinary investigation

This immediate explanation should have sealed the matter at the first meeting. It was clear that there had been a rush to judgement and some serious misconceptions had been formed. Still, when I received notification that I was required to attend a disciplinary investigation, I was not concerned. I regarded it as a formality before getting back to focusing on my teaching and research.

The investigation meeting occurred promptly, about a week later, and its purpose was to explore the events that had taken place, and allow me the opportunity to explain my actions, intentions and the context in which they had occurred. Despite my candid and well-evidenced rebuttal of the charges, it appeared that this had not weakened management’s attachment to their misapprehensions. Indeed, the need to uncover some other supposed transgressions to populate the same charges seemed even more urgent.  For example, at the investigation, I was asked precisely when I had written the blog piece. I interpreted this enquiry as an attempt to demonstrate that I had wasted work time on unauthorised activity. Since I usually confined my writing to evenings and weekends, I knew that this second effort to prove neglect of duties would fail.

The university’s policy on disciplinary action pledged that the process would be completed in a ‘timely’ manner. I expected to receive the report on the investigation within ten days, but I heard nothing for seven whole weeks after the investigation. At this point, I was informed that a disciplinary hearing was being called as the investigator had concluded there was sufficient evidence to believe there was a disciplinary case to answer. This took place four weeks later.

A new charge: ‘frightening students’

To pursue these allegations seemed an overreaction on the part of managers and a distortion of the gravity of the charge of gross misconduct, which is usually confined to financial or sexual impropriety. I was not suspended from work at any time and I continued to teach my classes. This seemed an unusual course of action towards an employee who was under charges of gross misconduct, and I began to wonder if I was really considered a genuine threat to the students or the university’s reputation. It remains my view that this misapplication of the process, in itself, brought the university into disrepute.

In the end, they had to settle for the absurd in their increasingly panicked pursuit of a charge which would hold firm. I had, apparently, ‘frightened’ the students in relaying my narrative of workplace stress, and the increasing toll of illness and suicide among academics. This they had ascertained from the blog piece where I stated, ‘I told them about the effects of long-term stress on the mind and body. I told them about the death of Stefan Grimm at Imperial College. And they were shocked and frightened that this could happen in a British university’. There is a difference, though, between students being frightened, and me having frightened them. The students were, of course, adults and, to my knowledge, nobody had complained about the episode.

So, in addition to frightening students, I had also, according to management, failed to observe the correct procedures for communicating information about mental health. In opening up to students about the stress academics face, I stood accused of sharing inappropriate information that left the students ‘in a stressful situation themselves’ (sic). It should be mentioned that there was no evidence that any students had felt stressed, nor had anyone complained about either my disclosure or the arrangements I had put in place for continuation of their studies. The managers, though, decided to take a very literal and restrictive view of the activities listed on the University Mental Health Day website.  Their claim was that the only permissible way to start a conversation about mental health in universities was to get students to fill in postcards. While this may have been one of the recommended activities for the 2016 event, it was by no means recognised as the only method of starting a conversation. Nevertheless, this inconsequential deviation was seized on as an example of my delinquency.

The threshold for bringing the university into disrepute was set even lower. The hearing concluded that there had been the potential for a detrimental reputational impact on the university. Of course, I had presented evidence which showed conclusively that there had been no such outcome, and also evidence confirming my expressed intention to avoid that outcome. Nevertheless, my accusers pronounced that it might have happened. Fictions and the imaginary, rather than evidence, apparently, are enough to sustain a career-threatening charge of gross misconduct. Even though my line manager had reassured me that ‘you have done nothing wrong,’ the allegations were sustained with only the breach of confidentiality dismissed. It didn’t matter. Management had their conviction and my union representative and I stepped outside while the sanctions were discussed.

A climate of intimidation

In the end, it was clearly not in the interest of management to dismiss me. The opportunities for legal challenge, which really would have brought them into disrepute, must have been only too apparent to them. It was much less likely that I would challenge the decision to issue a final written warning which would stay on my record for 18 months. This tactic would advance the real objective – the creation of a climate of intimidation resulting in the silencing of me, and by extension, other staff.

And so, despite having an unblemished record of service for over thirty years without so much as a late library book to sully it, I found myself with two counts of gross misconduct. For me, the only important thing was to retain my academic freedom: freedom to write, to blog and to campaign on issues of importance within the sector. It was now clear that living under an injunction whereby my employment could now be terminated at any point without notice, would put my ambitions in peril. I resigned immediately, and within a few months found myself able to write another piece in Times Higher Education.

Ironically, one performance metric I have allowed myself to embrace is the fact that this piece in the Times Higher recounting the experiences that led to my resignation became one of the top 25 most-viewed pieces of 2017.

Some colleagues have asked me why I didn’t fight this verdict. To me it seemed pointless to continue within an institution which seemed to have abandoned fairness and tolerance. In leaving, I signalled a refusal of management’s decree of abjection and shame. In an inversion and subversion of the whole disciplinary process, shame has been refracted by their own authoritarianism and disgrace has instead attached to them.

 Freedom of speech: the wrong end of the viewfinder

In a market-driven system, the legal requirement for universities to defend academic freedom has been overridden by the determination of university managers to avoid what they see as reputational damage. The issue has attracted the scrutiny of a series of universities ministers as well as the current secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson. Unfortunately, they have all found themselves staring down the wrong end of the viewfinder.

In a recent piece for The Times, Williamson has issued universities with ‘a final warning to guard free speech or face legislation’ and repeats the familiar accusation that students’ unions are responsible for disrupting invited speakers. He maintains this position despite the verdict of the 2018 Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights report on freedom of speech which ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’.

It is not students but rather university managers who have the most significant track record of compromising the academic freedom of staff and the freedom of speech of students. I outline just one recent example of the latter below.

A member of a student group at Loughborough University, Loughborough People and Planet, found themselves subject to disciplinary action for chalking messages on campus in support of their campaign for the university to cut their ties with Barclays Bank. The group objected to the bank’s ties to fossil fuel companies. Shockingly, the university senior management were concerned that the university should not become ‘a political space’. You wonder what they think universities are for, if not for political debate and the cultivation of active, responsible citizenship.

When leadership is subsumed by an exercise in public relations, students quickly learn that institutions which may proclaim students are customers can rapidly rescind that promise when the shop window display is disturbed.

Vice-chancellors and other senior managers have found some useful tools in constructing a cordon sanitaire of reputational impermeability. In a sector in which around a third of academics are engaged on temporary contracts, this precarity acts as one more instrument of coercion. It is the brave scholar who stands on a picket line, takes extended sick leave, or refuses to work more than their contracted hours when they understand these actions will be revisited at the time of contract renewal.

The plight of the early career academic

Even when a permanent position is secured, the period of probation is now so lengthy that, by its end, academic freedom must seem like a distant mirage. The early career researcher will have learned to conform to the required specialisms of the departmental unit of research, to publish in a narrow set of journals with high impact factors and to observe the priorities of the funding councils in making grant applications. The ability to demonstrate compliance to the strictures of the watching culture of universities is more important than being able to demonstrate originality in research. The scholar who, like me, wishes to contribute to the field of critical university studies is particularly vulnerable. Even if making a general observation about universities, they are likely to be accused of implying criticism of the institution in which they work. Research which is driven by honesty and integrity will not emerge from a strategy of academic defensive driving which many young academics have been forced to adopt.

The surveillance continues outside the academy into cyberspace. Many academics suspect their social media accounts are being monitored by human resources, reporting to senior managers.

We find both staff and students being pressured into silence by the imposition of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Shockingly, these have been used to prevent victims of sexual assaults students from speaking out about their experiences under threat of expulsion from their courses. The BBC states that £87 million has been spent on silencing academics since 2017. This, of course, is money furnished by students’ tuition fees. In 2020 we might now construe such cover-up tactics as Trumpian admissions of guilt.

If academic freedom is to flourish, universities must allow dissent

Universities need to draw back from repression and allow dissent. It is simply not acceptable that the only critical opinion permitted to cross the vice chancellor’s desk must come in the form of a management consultant’s report. University executives must be held accountable for breaches of academic freedom, and this requires a strengthening of faculty and student voices. Universities must become more democratic in their governance and outlook.

In an era of weakened trade unions and an academic body whose members are demoralized by their experience of precarity, vice-chancellors must accept that, for academic freedom to thrive, requires very thorough protections for those scholars who offer a challenge to ‘the university’ from within. There is a very simple resolution, of course, and it already exists. Universities must observe the safeguards enshrined in law, and they must create the conditions whereby staff and students feel secure enough to speak their truth. As Judith Butler wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 2018, ‘Censorship is always an indirect confession of fear. The censor exposes himself as a fearful being. He fears speech and seeks to contain it. His fear attributes to his opponent’s speech a power that it may or may not have.’

For the sake of scholars facing oppressive and hostile structures, let our speech be free and let it be heard.

 

References

Deem, R. and Brehony, K. 2005. Management as ideology: the case of ‘new managerialsim’ in higher education. Oxford Review of Education 31 (2): 217-335.

Deem, R., Hillyard, S. and Reed, M. 2007. Knowledge, Higher Education and the New Managerialism: The Changing Management of UK Universities. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morrish, Liz. Academic Irregularities. https://academicirregularities.wordpress.com/

Morrish, Liz and Sauntson, Helen. 2020. Academic Irregularities: Language and Neoliberalism in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Sam’s on campus, but is the campus onto Sam?

A version of this article first appeared on *HE: Policy and markets in higher education, published by Research Fortnight on 5th July 2018. 

It might have been mildly embarrassing for the Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, Sam Gyimah, to have to retract his accusation a couple of weeks ago, that a lecturer at King’s College London had been reported for spreading ‘hate speech’ during his history lectures, but the evidence was against him. Unfortunately, like some more of Mr Gyimah’s more volatile claims on stifling of freedom of speech in universities, this had proved impossible to verify.

However, rather than being reassured that Gyimah has had to back away from citing unsubstantiated anecdotes, perhaps we should be concerned that this behavior fits a pattern in modern politics, of pushing at the boundaries of credibility knowing that some fabrications will stick if they are repeated often enough. In this case, academics, universities and freedom of speech itself are all damaged by these allegations.

Sam Gyimah has styled himself as rather a champion-protector of freedom of speech on campus, and has already hosted a free speech summit for universities, urging leaders to stamp out ‘institutional hostility to unfashionable views’ and to take stronger action against ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no-platform’ policies that he alleges have appeared on campuses.

It is perhaps convenient that the minister has overlooked the actions of a member of his own party whose partisan interest in the university curriculum recently caused controversy. Last October, a few months prior to Gyimah’s appointment, Chris Heaton-Harris, MP wrote to vice-chancellors asking for the names of any professors involved in teaching courses in European Studies which might have a bearing on Brexit. He suspected that such courses were being taught from a point of view which might lean towards Remain.

It was probably a futile gesture designed to draw attention to some politicians’ belief that all academics are left leaning. This fear seems to have its origin in the ongoing US culture wars, and a recent study which found that 60 percent of professors identify as liberals, while a mere 12 percent identify as conservative. Despite allegations of ‘group think’ and lack of political diversity, there is no real evidence in the UK, apart from anecdotes such as the one dismissed by King’s, to indicate that political orientations translate into bias in the classroom. There is nothing to suggest that issues like Brexit are taught in a way which is not entirely evidence-driven, nor is there anything to suggest that students are not free to argue with their lecturers.

Nevertheless, Sam Gyimah has kept his attention on this issue and fully embraces his new ministerial role with a sharper focus on students than any of his predecessors. He does occasionally, though, give the impression that, far from being even-handed, he is rather invested in being minister primarily for conservative students. He has openly stated that his ‘Sam on campus’ tours have been intended to bestow on the Tories the kind of appeal elicited by Labour politicians, and especially Jeremy Corbyn.

The first concerns about a new kind of partiality within government were raised when, on January 1st 2018, it was announced that provocative conservative commentator, Toby Young, would be serving on the board of the Office for Students, and that Ruth Carlson, a hitherto unknown name, had been selected as the board member for the student experience when, according to a written answer from the Minister to Kevin Brennan, MP,  she had not even been among the original applicants considered appointable. Her chief virtue seemed to be that she had no connection with the National Union of Students. Even though Young resigned, the episode led to accusations that the new Office for Students was little more than an office for state control.

 

These developments are all the more disconcerting if we consider some recent precursors in the US. In February 2017, a state senator in Iowa introduced a bill into the state’s legislature. The bill, SF 288, aimed to ensure that ‘hires’ – and this targeted just new academic recruits – at the state’s universities should reflect equal proportions of liberals and conservatives. The purpose of the bill, according to its sponsor, Republican state senator Mark Chelgren, was an attempt to counter the ‘liberal slant’ at the state’s three public universities, and its wording specified the exact proportions to be achieved:

“A person shall not be hired as a professor or instructor member of the faculty at such an institution if the person’s political party affiliation on the date of hire would cause the percentage of the faculty belonging to one political party to exceed by ten percent the percentage of the faculty belonging to the other political party, on the date established by the board for determining the political party composition of the faculty.”

Notwithstanding debates in the US about affirmative action for under-represented groups, this seems like an unnecessary privileging of a group which does not lack political clout.

UK readers may be wondering how university hiring committees would be made aware of political affiliations. The answer lies in the voter registration processes of many states in which voters need to register with a particular party – Republican or Democratic – if they wish to participate in that party’s primary elections. The bill specified that those records would be made available to the state board of regents which governs the state-funded higher education institutions. However, the measure was opposed by the board of regents and the bill failed to proceed.

At around the same time, a Republican state senator in North Carolina, Ralph Hise, was tabling a similar measure in his state legislature, requiring faculty members across the UNC system to “reflect the ideological balance of the citizens of the state,” plus or minus two percentage points.

So, when a minister alleges political bias in universities, or condemns political activism within them, or when the Office for Students threatens to fine universities for alleged failure to protect freedom of speech (even as they must abide by the Prevent Strategy), this echoes the more extreme political interference attempted in Iowa and North Carolina. Even the sanctions resonate with Office for Students discourse. This from North Carolina sounds familiar:

“If the accreditors conclude that something is amiss, they could sanction individual UNC campuses, which would endanger the ability of those campuses to attract research funding, facilitate financial aid, and compete nationally and internationally for faculty and students.”

And indeed, we see on 20th June, a tweet from the Office for Students clearly stating a threat to intervene in universities’ pay structures when they deem a vice chancellor’s pay to lack justification.

OfS threaten VCs

In Iowa, these assaults on university autonomy have come hard on the heels of repeated pressure to rescind tenure and end faculty collective bargaining. But in the UK, we no longer have even the nominal protection of tenure, and assaults on collective bargaining and benefits are well underway. Much of the sector is now staffed with casualized labour – exactly the kind of employees likely to police their own teaching and publications for apparent political bias. The field has been cleared for dirigiste policies.

It seems disingenuous to venerate university autonomy, as Gyimah did at the February 2018 launch of the Office for Students, when your regulatory regime is predicated on attempts to curb it. If the threat of tenured radicals has been seen off in the UK, then a new one has been installed. Not, as Gyimah might imagine, in the form of NUS militants, but in the form of a regulatory body which has control and political entryism as its priorities.