At the beginning of this year, the University of Texas began permitting guns on its campus, including in the classroom. In response, I’m beginning a personal boycott. I will not accept invitations to speak at any university where guns are allowed in class – and I’d like others to join me.
I have in the past given talks in US cities where guns may be carried, and sometimes where murder rates are high. Many Americans say that they feel safer when carrying a gun. There is ample statistical evidence that they are not. Being in the vicinity of a gun immediately increases your chances of being shot. I’ve been willing to take that risk to visit the US, but once one crosses the threshold of a university campus, one should be in a place free of weapons and any threat of violence.
There are a number of reasons for this. Some of them are practical. I would not want to speak to an audience whose members may carry guns. Academic debate can become heated. A good lecturer challenges the audience, pushing people out of their comfort zones. The presence of guns would almost certainly change that dynamic. Suppose I get a stupid question, delivered in an arrogant or aggressive way. The thought that the questioner might be carrying a weapon might well affect how I respond. Perhaps I would just let it go. But then my academic integrity and freedom to give an honest reply has been compromised through fear.
Even if I’m not provocative, I am still not safe in a university with guns. For a variety of reasons, people are sometimes dangerously unstable. The threat of violence is hugely increased if handguns are available. And any such threat falls disproportionately on the most conspicuous person in the room: the lecturer speaking at the front of the class. If anything did go wrong in the mind of a gun-carrying audience member, I could well be in the line of fire, no matter how polite my talk.
These safety concerns might or might not be empirically well grounded. But the bigger reasons for my boycott are philosophical; I might even say metaphysical. Guns and universities simply should not mix.
The most important role of the university is as protector and nourisher of civilisation and culture. This is in direct opposition to the idea that physical violence solves anything. Universities are places of confrontation, provocation, argument and challenge: but all the challenges are intellectual; the confrontations are between ideas; the arguments are rational; and provocation is targeted against dogmatic slumber. Might is not right; indeed it has no place whatsoever on the campus. Universities and violence – even its mere threat – are in ideological opposition. We may live in an increasingly brutalised and weaponised society, but we must still set down our arms at the gates of the university, marking our transition into the world of ideas.
Gregory Fenves, the president of the University of Texas, claims reluctance in allowing guns into class. He is subject to state law, he protests, which declares gun bans illegal in public universities. Is a boycott against the university therefore misdirected? I don’t think so. The state of Texas has to understand what a university is and how it must function. Universities are subject to a grander law. To be a university means participating in an international conversation. If the global community declines to attend events at universities that are willing to put them at risk through adherence to their local regulations, those universities can no longer be full participants in this historic enterprise we call academia. With the credibility of their university system undermined, the lawmakers might think again.
I doubt that the University of Texas has any immediate plans to invite me to speak, and, to that extent, my boycott causes it no harm. But it might if others did the same. I’d therefore welcome others joining me in urging the restoration of sanity to the institutions whose task is to be at the forefront of its defence.
Stephen Mumford is professor of metaphysics at the University of Nottingham.