There has been a series of comments in THE since March about the situation of Thomas Docherty, a professor suspended by the University of Warwick. The comments have been elliptical, because it appears that he has been required by his university to have no contact with colleagues and students while a case against him is being processed.
As a previous correspondent has pointed out (“A little less conversation”, Letters, 26 June), the constraints on Docherty are extraordinarily stringent. What is the role of such fierce conditions of silence in this case? And what is their justification?
One element in the case is Docherty’s public profile. He is a frequent, and admired, contributor to the debate on the nature of higher education. His stance on various issues is characterised by a fierce concern for equality, for the needs and demands of the disadvantaged in the present system, and by a searching critique of just how the system fails to consider how to tackle inequality deep down.
In March, the University of Warwick denied that Docherty’s “activism” was the grounds of the claim against him: “the disciplinary allegations in no way relate to the content of the individual’s academic views or their views on HE policy”. The university’s approach to questions from the press has promoted its own position at the expense of Docherty’s by means of the rhetoric of silence. They know that he may not respond, for fear of dismissal. So they fail to explain what is at issue; and their response carries the implication that somehow the “offence” deserved it.
On the contrary; the extremity of the university’s gag on Docherty, and the long period of irresolution of the issue, along with the expense of legal representation, points to the inference that in the case of someone who is a courageous critic of the sector’s managerial culture, the university needs to destroy first, and account for it after. Following the event, apologising for these measures will be easy enough; at the time, it exploits his silence to end his career.
Those of us who care about universities and the role of academics in critical assessment of how they are run and what they aim to do, should be standing at Docherty’s side, when eventually his university finds a date to hear his case. Silence is a clear and present danger.
Mary Margaret McCabe
Professor of ancient philosophy
King’s College London