All posts by Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams is the education editor of Spiked and the author of Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity.

Brexit Shows Ugly Side of British Universities

Censorious antics of ‘snowflake’ students have regularly made front-page news here in the UK. No longer. The momentous political fall-out from the June 23rd referendum, when a majority of citizens voted in favor of Britain leaving the European Union, has swept all other concerns aside. Whatever occurs in the coming months, whether ‘Brexit’ actually happens, or, as looks increasingly likely, the democratic will of the people is kicked into the long grass, the response to the referendum from within universities has had a devastating impact on academic freedom.

A Predetermined Position

My first indication that the debate around Brexit might be used to curtail free speech on campus came, ironically, after I gave a lecture on academic freedom. When I had finished speaking, the vice chancellor of the university thanked me but then went on talk about the institution’s perspective on the referendum. It surprised me that, despite making a rhetorical nod to the importance of debate, the most senior person in the university was prepared to advocate so forcefully for one particular political position. A week later, over coffee, a colleague confided that although he wanted to argue the case for Brexit publicly, he was concerned that this might have a negative impact upon his career.

It would be difficult to imagine universities, in the run up to a general election, publicly articulating a preference for one party over another, or urging staff and students to vote a certain way. But this is what happened in the run up to the referendum. Universities UK (UUK), an umbrella group representing the collective interests of the British higher education sector, launched its Universities for Europe campaign in July 2015. Its aim was to demonstrate how ‘the EU strengthens our already world-class higher-education system’ and to ‘promote powerful evidence and highlight compelling stories about the benefits of European Union membership’.

If an undergraduate sought ‘powerful evidence’ to prove an already determined political position they would, rightly, be criticized. An academic would be accused of blurring the lines between research and propaganda. Yet UUK expected scholarship to support a clearly defined agenda rather than simply contribute objective knowledge to a marketplace of ideas. If academic freedom is not formally curtailed, it certainly becomes more difficult to practice when intellectual contributions are not seen as competing claims of truth but as moral position statements.

Academics Fall in Line

When scholars first fought for the right to academic freedom it was precisely so that they could teach and argue for ideas that ran counter to the beliefs of university managers and benefactors. Today, the expectation that academics will fall in line with an institutional perspective on EU membership has passed virtually without comment. It has gone unchallenged because the overwhelming majority of academics share the opinion they were asked to support.

In the weeks prior to the referendum, a poll conducted by a British magazine, the Times Higher Education, suggested that 90 per cent of academics intended to vote to remain in the EU. As the referendum approached, a number of these scholars took to social media to declare ‘I don’t know anyone who is voting leave.’ Such statements were intended to summon up the collective might of academia, the assumption being that if all these clever people are voting remain then that must be the only reasonable course of action. Obviously, with hindsight, these bold declarations only emphasize how cut off some academics are from the general population.

The result of the referendum, a 52 per cent vote in favour of leaving the EU, reveals at a stroke the gulf between the political views of an academic class and the views held by the general population. This chasm, together with academia’s growing ideological homogeneity, is bad for both academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge. When one view dominates over all others then the voices challenging dominant perspectives and asking awkward questions of research data are silenced. Truth does not emerge from consensus, even if all members of the consensus have doctorates, rather it emerges from putting theories to the test and rigorous testing requires a plurality of perspectives.

Homogeneity Suppresses Knowledge

 The shock that many academics expressed upon hearing the referendum result provides a neat illustration of how political homogeneity acts to suppress knowledge. If British universities had acted less like an ideological bubble, then scholars may have been less surprised at the outcome and more aware of the factors influencing the leave vote.

Since the referendum result has been announced, rather than expressing humility at their ignorance of public attitudes, many academics have instead further pulled up the university ramparts. One professor has called the vote to leave a triumph of ‘xenophobia, fear, ignorance and nostalgia.’ Everywhere leave voters were charged with racism, xenophobia and ignorance. Yet this is despite the fact that polling conducted on the day showed the primary motivation for people deciding to vote leave was ‘the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.’ Another highly respected survey, conducted a year before the referendum, showed that ‘the poorest and least educated were less likely than anyone else to think Brexit would reduce immigration.’

The sentiment some academics have expressed against leave voters has been ugly, unfounded and prejudiced. This was not just directed at voters from outside of universities but at the tiny minority of academics brave enough to declare publicly that they voted leave. One lecturer tells me she was yelled at in a corridor, another that colleagues have stopped speaking to him altogether. The danger now is that the 90 percent political consensus is turned into 100 percent ideological homogeneity as academics with opposing views are told that they are not welcome in academia.

How to Overcome the Referendum

Since the referendum, academics have been busy. Some, such as Professor A C Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities, have been demonstrating, signing petitions and writing letters ‘urging Parliament not to support a motion to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty’ or, in other words, campaigning to have the referendum result overturned. Others have been re-evaluating degree programs, exploring ways to make the promotion of European citizenship more explicit. But it is no more the role of academics to interfere in the democratic process than it is to instruct students in which values they should adopt.

After the referendum, British academics need to pause for thought. They urgently need to consider the consequences for academic freedom and the pursuit of knowledge of the emergence of an institutional perspective on the one hand and a growing political consensus on the other. Not all ideas are equally valid and the university provides an ideal place for testing opinions through debate. However, for debate to be meaningful a variety of views must be heard. Attempts to use higher education to mould a particular type of citizen, one who enacts values predetermined by an academic elite, can only ever lead to the stifling of debate through mindless conformity.

Donald Downs on the Return of Campus Censorship

The demand for equality that’s emerging on campuses today is primarily underpinned by two things: identity politics and a perception of individuals as suffering from trauma. Students have become attached to the particular trauma they identify with; they see it as a badge of honor and any perceived slight becomes a threat to their sense of who they are. So says Donald Downs, professor of political science, law and journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

More than a decade after the publication of his book, Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, Professor Downs is not confident about the state of academic freedom. “Things go in cycles,” he told me. “In the 1980s and 90s, censorship was driven by political correctness. There was some blowback and things got a little better.

“Now censorship is coming back as liberty and equality are increasingly pitched against each other. This time it’s students who, in the name of equality, are demanding a climate free from offense, waging a war against micro-aggressions and calling for trigger warnings. Students are leading the way in stifling intellectual dissent and academics don’t know how to handle this. Too often they just acquiesce.”

Downs initially supported speech codes at the University of Wisconsin, where he has been a professor since 1980. But watching his colleagues’ “lives and careers ruined by censorship’” changed his mind. In Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, published in 2004, he charted the attacks on free speech on campuses since the late 1980s, and the campaign he helped coordinate at Wisconsin to get speech codes overturned.

Downs notes that the speech codes had more to do with promoting sensitivity and diversity than with tackling prejudice. This broad-brush approach demanded a code to cover every eventuality and allowed policies to proliferate. The University of Michigan, he said, had 20 separate policies at one point, dealing with such things as climate, harassment, speech and diversity – “they were being made up as they went along.”

Although these codes were often written and implemented by administrators who had little understanding of the academic environment, Downs is clear that faculty cannot be let off the hook: “They let this situation happen.’ Liberal academics, often politically sympathetic to the issues covered, generally trusted administrators to implement policies appropriately. To criticize speech codes, Downs remarks, “was to make a statement that you were insensitive to racism or sexism and few were prepared to do this.”

“During most of the twentieth century, threats to academic freedom came from the political right, and from outside institutions of higher learning. The new attacks on free thought that arose in the later 1980s turned this pattern on its head: they have arisen from leftist sources inside the ivory tower.” The book also provides a salutary lesson in how free speech can be regained. Downs emphasizes throughout that “rights won through politics and legislation are more likely to change people’s thinking because majorities have to be convinced to agree.”

This article is reprinted with permission from Spiked, an online British journal of current affairs.