Self-censorship on campus goes against everything our great universities should and must stand for

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James Knell
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Britain is home to some of the best universities anywhere in the world and it’s there that the UK developed an unrivalled intellectual tradition. They are a bulwark against ideological dogma and an intolerance to freedom of speech and thought – if this line of defence is breached it reverberates across society. However, bias exists in universities as it does any other institution. The free speech commitments of university charters are of course nothing but words on paper in the absence of a will by those in charge to meaningfully implement them.

And so, amidst growing concerns about freedoms on campus, the thinktank Policy Exchange has just published a report which alleges that there is a “structural discriminatory effect” against a minority of right-wing academics at British universities.

Findings included that three-quarters of academics surveyed support Left-wing parties; fewer than one in five support parties of the Right. 9% of academics in the social sciences and humanities voted to Leave the EU whilst just 7% identify as “right of centre”. Only 54%of academics would feel comfortable sitting next to a Leave supporter over lunch, and just 37% would feel comfortable sitting next to somebody who holds gender-critical views. Prejudice affects grant allocation, article publication and promotional opportunities.

The report was cited by those on the right as yet further evidence of an erosion of intellectual diversity on campus. On the left, it was derided over perceptions of a less than watertight methodology and questionable inferences. The tone of the response has been largely disappointing – the report seized upon in the interests of politicized mud-slinging – was it too much to hope it might encourage meaningful debate about the role of our scholarly institutions? 

Whilst this is a vitally important report exposing a creeping intolerance of views, by the same token it is equally important not to overstate the extent of the problem. Doing so does a disservice to the overwhelming majority of academics who, according to the report’s own findings, do not support expunging from the university those professors with whom they disagree. It’s also worth noting that this is a particular problem in the social sciences and the humanities where it is naturally more challenging to filter from what should be objective evidence-based scholarship the ideological predispositions of the author. Fewer such problems exist in say, the teaching of chemistry or engineering. The problem is then doubly ingrained by virtue of the fact that the overwhelming majority of UK undergraduate students study social science and humanities subjects.

This being said, the report has confirmed by way of hard data what most of us suspected was the case for years – that the most insidious aspects of woke culture are spreading throughout our universities. The starkest effect of this is  a “chilling effect” whereby minority views are kept under wraps by way of self-imposed censorship at the very institutions where all views should be voiced, discussed, debated and criticised.

At one such institution, Oxford University, theology professor Nigel Biggar has been labelled “racist” and “imperialist” by colleagues for committing the grave academic offence of leading an inquiry on the ethics of empire. This absurdity at the same university whose student union is establishing an alarming reputation for “cancelling” speakers whose views or background does not fit neatly with the union’s progressive left – social justice endorsing – worldview. Notable victims so far include former home secretary Amber Rudd and Oxford’s own history Professor Selina Todd whose views on transgender rights necessetiatied security protection. Add to that Charles Murray, Linda Gottfredson – the list goes on…

The key problem here is that a significant number within the academic world do not understand that by relentlessly advocating progressive left-wing values (see gender, EU, white privilege etc), they are in fact nurturing an environment which blurs the distinction between scholarship and social justice. It’s not so much that many professors are a nasty bunch of people driven by malicious intent – quite the opposite – but the problem is a lack of awareness, a lack of exposure to a real diversity of views and so without even realising it, the prevailing group think engenders a culture of self-censorship. Working in an academic echo chamber rarely forces you to think objectively and that’s bad for academia. Let’s not forget university professors are subsidised by the taxpayer for the benefit of all, a lack of diverse opinions ultimately harms research. 

The report warns that “Hostile or just uncomfortable attitudes signal to those … such discrimination that they should conceal their views and narrow their research questions to conform to prevailing norms, if they wish to progress and enjoy a positive workplace experience”. There is always a cost to expressing certain views and in no institution in the world (academic or not) is this not the case – it would be naive to think otherwise. But in a university of all places – orthodoxy left or right should be resisted by all – it is inimical to the concept of critical thinking and thus learning. Professors do not expect it from their students – why should we tolerate it from the people who teach them?

James Knell

Research Director

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