A former universities minister has urged academics to stand firm for liberal intellectual values in the face of attacks from right-wingers who allege that there is a free speech crisis on campuses.
David Lammy, who was the universities minister for England in the Labour government between 2007 and 2010, told the Times Higher Education Teaching Excellence Summit that such claims were being made by white males who had long enjoyed social privilege.
Many scholars have argued that the issue of free speech on campus has been adopted by right-wingers, fearful of academic scrutiny, as a narrative to discredit universities.
Academics who might feel under threat to limit their critiques of such threats should remember the far greater “free speech” challenges that millions of people across Western societies felt only a few decades ago, Mr Lammy told the conference at Western University in Ontario.
“Let’s be absolutely clear,” Mr Lammy said to sustained applause from the audience of academic leaders, “my ancestors had to be very careful about what they said; women had to be very careful; lesbian, queer, my God, you had to be careful, not just about what you said, but who you loved.”
Mr Lammy capped a conference that explored the ways in which universities and their teachers could better encourage students traditionally excluded from higher education, especially those from ethnic minorities or Indigenous populations.
In the UK, Mr Lammy has been especially critical of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which have managed to garner top positions in global rankings despite making slow progress in their efforts to widen access.
In largely blaming such failures on schools, the two institutions were overlooking the fact that leading universities in the US managed to enrol large numbers of minority students despite having arguably worse state school systems, Mr Lammy argued.
The real problem with Oxford and Cambridge, Mr Lammy claimed, was a lack of meaningful outreach into minority communities and their steadfast refusal to impose uniform admissions standards across their colleges.
“Pipelines of talent are there to be found,” Mr Lammy said. With more effort, “we would see profound transformation”, he claimed.
Print headline: Fight talk of ‘free speech’ crisis, Lammy urges