Cambridge scholars mobilise to fight ‘respect’ agenda once more

Critics say draft policy put out for consultation ‘restricts free speech’ beyond legal obligations

六月 14, 2022
Senate House, University of Cambridge

The University of Cambridge’s incoming leader could become immediately embroiled in a free speech row with a number of academics opposing a new “mutual respect” policy.

A consultation has been held on a second draft of the document that aims to “prevent inappropriate behaviour in the workplace” alongside a new grievance policy that outlines how complaints will be dealt with.

While both documents stress that they should be read in conjunction with the university’s free speech statement, critics claimed that they represented management trying to restrict speech beyond its legal responsibilities.

“I’ve got no doubt that these proposals are well-intentioned, but it is not the place of a university to be restricting speech beyond the law. Universities are there for the free discussion of ideas; they are not finishing schools for groupthinkers,” said Arif Ahmed, a reader in philosophy at the university.

The policy’s aim is to create “a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and courtesy” and states “there is no place for any form of bullying, harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, or victimisation in our community”.

But Ross Anderson, professor of security engineering at Cambridge, said respect was the wrong choice of word, particularly as this terminology was removed from the free speech statement in favour of “tolerate” after a vote in the university’s governing body, Regent House.

“It is unreasonable to expect atheists to respect the views of religious believers, or to expect climate change activists to respect the work of earth scientists who are trying to make mining or oil drilling more efficient, or to expect campaigners for social justice to respect law professors who advise banks how to avoid regulation. What is reasonable is to expect members of the university to treat each other with tolerance and courtesy,” Professor Anderson said.

He added that the draft policy “reads as if it has been adapted from a corporate HR manual” and does not consider the complexity of the university’s structures, which includes emeritus staff and visiting professors as well as those who work directly for the colleges.

The policy could only realistically apply to regular employees such as hourly-paid staff and researchers, he said, and not university officers, whose disciplinary procedures are a matter of statute, or students, because a separate system for discipline exists, mainly run by the colleges.

Visitors, suppliers and others will be expected to behave in a manner that is consistent with the code of behaviour outlined in the policy, but Professor Anderson said it was unclear how this would be enforced in reality.

Dr Ahmed added that he had “grave concerns” about the compulsory training element that would be introduced for all staff on areas such as diversity, which he claimed had “proven to be useless”.

A previous version of the same document was withdrawn in May 2021 and shortly afterwards, vice chancellor Stephen Toope announced his early departure from his position. He will be replaced on an interim basis from October by Anthony Freeling, outgoing president of Hughes Hall, Cambridge, just as the final versions of the new policies are likely to come to Regent House for a vote.

Free speech concerns are likely to be a key feature of Professor Freeling’s brief six-month tenure, with the government looking to pass its Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill.

A Cambridge spokesman said the policy was clear that it could not be used to undermine the university’s statement on freedom of speech – and this point had been emphasised to those concerned.

“In common with most other large organisations the university has policies governing staff behaviour. These are reviewed from time to time and this update is subject to a university-wide consultation with the purpose of understanding the broad range of views,” he added.



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Reader's comments (6)

Very good to hear that my alma mater is taking this on. Ross Anderson makes a very good point and all we can ask is that we remain civil. Like many "box-ticking" policies, this one will not result in changing the misbehaviour of some but will burden all with tiresome courses of the sort that I have often endured.
Interesting the move from 'respect' to 'tolerate'... why is it so hard for some people to respect the rights of others to hold an opinion that differs from their own? I'm sure they don't want to merely be 'tolerated'... does the atheist, to use one of the examples in the article, want to have their belief that there is no god to be respected as a valid opinion or just tolerated as some kind of aberration that they might get over one day?
Speaking as an athiest, I don't require others to respect my athiesm, just refrain from burning me at the stake.
What the UK needs is tenure returned to universities so that staff can say whatever they like that is not illegal--as long as they can demonstrate it was reasonable debate. It ought not be a matter determined from employer to employer, but ought to be protected in Employment Law and a Bill of Rights for the nation.
Free speech and "tenure" need enshrining in law so that universities can become centers of debate once again. The American model is the best--what we see in the UK is professors that are in their mid to late 60s speaking up, as they do not fear dismissal or cancellation as their career is largely behind them. We need a brave new generation of debaters and that is not coming if there is no tenure.
Universities (and other education institutions) in the UK generally spend way too much time on "policy" documents. But these are in the end just legally irrelevant essays, used to decorate admin web sites with vague and impractical prose. Forget documents headed "policy" and focus instead on excellent teaching and research.