Writing in the Times on 7th February, the Secretary of State of Education issued a ‘final warning’ to universities to get their act together over protecting freedom of expression on campus. Gavin Williamson’s intent was clear: ‘If the universities don’t take action to defend free speech on campus, the Government will’.
Over the years, Universities UK (UUK), the body that represents the views and interests of vice-chancellors has maintained a consistent ‘move along, nothing to see here’ attitude towards the pervasive problem of censorship, despite its adverse impact on students and academic staff. UUK chief executive Alistair Jarvis declared that ‘universities are absolutely committed to promoting and protecting free speech’.
Well, you could have fooled us. Universities UK has been denying what is obvious to anyone reading a newspaper over recent years, let alone those students and scholars who have direct experience of the widespread curtailment of freedom of debate and the climate of moral regulation on campus.
UUK’s insouciance puts one in mind of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch. The Gulag inmate ponders ‘How can a man who is warm understand a man who is cold?’ Like a camp guard, devoid of empathy for the slave labourers who starve and freeze, the remote and well-rewarded holders of vice-chancellorships cannot understand what the fuss is about. It’s not their opinions that are being suppressed.
The alternative moral universe that leaders in higher education seem to inhabit causes them to overlook how their complacency has given licence to intimidation and censoriousness. Under the current crop of university managers the self-invoked ideology of social justice activism – for which read an ultra-left sectarian ideology based on ‘identity politics’ – has impunity.
Student unions are usually at the vanguard of this cancel culture. They have, however, willing enablers in university administrations who, if not actually sympathetic, temporise before them. Try discussing mainstream conservative or Christian beliefs, or put the sceptical feminist case against transgenderism, or organise a civil debate between opposing political viewpoints, and see how quickly the campus thought-police will come after you.
We can anticipate the rebuttals already. Guardian columnists refute the ‘myth of the free speech crisis’. It will be said, for example, that the mere fact that we are writing this article shows that there is freedom to express contrary opinions, ignoring the fact that while we might be natural contrarians, we are also senior academics with relatively thick skins. Junior academics worried about their career progression are far less likely to peer over the parapet.
It will be said that ‘free-speech’ is a mutable concept, hedged around with all sorts of caveats. Freedom of speech was once a ‘noble’ cause, according to one writer in the Guardian, which encompassed ‘striving for the right to publish works that offend people’s sexual or religious prudery’. It is now a tool of the far right to justify ‘attacking the weak and persecuted’. Which is an interesting way of saying that ‘free speech is great when I agree with it’.
Another rebuttal is that everyone has the right to free expression, but people are not free of the consequence of that expression. For sure, no one should be immune to having their views examined and tested. That is the essence of proper intellectual discourse. However, if those consequences are being prevented from speaking, cancelled, or hounded out of your job, that is not freedom but an abomination.
Recent cases in universities show that free speech violations were not really protecting the ‘weak and persecuted’, howsoever defined, but were blatant efforts to suppress staff and students who present unorthodox ideas or inconvenient truths. The goal is clearly to expel wrong-thinkers from the public domain through the tactics of denunciation, character assassination and career stalling.
To cite a few cases: Felix Ngole, a student illegally thrown off his social work course at Sheffield University for his Christian beliefs; Julia Rynkiewicz, a midwifery student at Nottingham University barred from clinical placement due to her involvement in a pro-life society; Noah Carl, a highly talented sociologist, dismissed from a fellowship by Cambridge University following false allegations that he was peddling race science, with a petition signed by professors who clearly hadn’t read his work; the no-platforming of feminists Germaine Greer, Julie Bindel and Linda Bellos for supposedly anti-trans remarks; violent protests against Israeli speakers and societies.
This small selection of cases are bad enough for the people involved. But perhaps more worrying is the broader air of fear and coercion that is engendered. Who but the most robust, or foolish, on campus will speak out?
How these regressive tendencies have been allowed to take root within the high seats of learning is a complex question, but they are conditions over which university leaders have presided, and over which they show little willingness to accept responsibility. Trevor Phillips, the former Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, observed: ‘It is weakness of faculties and university authorities who in many cases just cannot seem to bring themselves to stand up for higher education values’. Vice-chancellors are ‘behaving like frightened children’ and failing to ‘stand up for their basic charters’.
Phillips’s observation raises the disquieting question of whether those in the ivory towers these days have much understanding of, or commitment to, the very idea of the university? The evidence is that they do not. They have overseen the development of a campus culture that revels in the squashing of freedom of expression, the reduction of viewpoint plurality, the limitation of debate and the silencing, if not punishment of those deemed to have wrong opinions.
Gavin Williamson’s warning that universities are drinking in the last chance saloon offers vice-chancellors an opportunity to show that they are capable of self-reflection and robust intervention to maintain academe as a bastion of enlightenment values. If they cannot establish effective rules to defend speech, which they have conspicuously failed to do, then clearly someone else will have to do it for them. Universities will have no one to blame but themselves.
M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory, King’s College London; Dr Niall McCrae is Senior Lecturer in Mental Health, King’s College London.