Over the course of recent weeks, the media have been fascinated with the subject of free speech on campus.
Most recently the fear has been that there was too much of it. Newspapers worried that apologists for jihadist groups were using our universities to prey on the vulnerable. Several universities, including the University of Sheffield, were misrepresented in terms of what they had permitted to be said at campus events, and vice-chancellors were urged to take a stronger stand. Prior to that there were concerns (largely from the same newspapers) that restrictions on freedom of speech had gone too far. Revisionist historians and politically correct lobbyists were allegedly trying to purge universities of symbols of colonialism (such as the plaque commemorating Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford) or restrict criticism of transgender identity (in the case of Germaine Greer’s talk at Cardiff University, which many students argued should be cancelled). Once again, universities came in for criticism.
In fact, all of this rarely bears on the daily life of a university such as Sheffield, with its 24,000 students and 7,000 staff. However, headlines can sometimes create their own reality, and you may have begun to form an opinion regarding two among my long list of duties as a vice-chancellor: to be aware of the possibility of radicalisation and to protect freedom of speech.
If you think either of these is easy, this article is not for you. If you want to hear how I – a physicist by background and a teacher for decades – personally approach these thorny matters, read on.
I begin with people – and, like all of us, I bring with me insights from my own life. Now in my sixties, I remember other groups that urged violent action long before anyone had heard of Islamic State. When I see radicalisation, I recall the sweet and generous face of one my school friends, who was later caught up in the Welsh nationalist terror acts of the 1980s. He was tried and found guilty, but the judge noted that he had been swept up by the persuasive call of far more guilty men.
It is not that I want to compare actions such as burning down English-owned second homes in Wales to the truly awful acts of IS. I just want to explain that I have personally seen how a calm young man can be brought to commit unlawful and dangerous acts by listening to others. Anyone brought up in Belfast could no doubt tell similar stories. The danger is real, and we work closely with colleagues in the Home Office and the police, as well as with our own student and faith communities, to make our campus as safe as we can.
When I think of what free speech means, I am also stirred by something else: a need to expose students to the views and experiences of others without undermining the sense of the student body as a large, extended family. I have been involved in student life since my twenties – most closely as a warden of an Imperial College London residence in the 1980s. This was a good place to learn an important lesson (also drummed in by parenting): that efforts to resolve differences are not always helped by a spotlight or a microphone. All of us can be quick to take a stand, but talking without listening first doesn’t build understanding or help a community. If a student comes and complains about another’s actions or words, the first thing you ask is: “Have you talked to them about this? And if you did, were you nice and polite?”
Raising issues with people face to face is difficult and sometimes dreaded, but is formidably effective in defining the real problems. This is just the point that US president Barack Obama emphasised in his address to the United Nations in September: “Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they’re defeated by better ideas – a more attractive and compelling vision.” Shouting at one another across the debating chamber, or via mainstream or social media, is not the place to begin. The speech may be free, but the quality of the discussion is cheap and the costs to damaged community are far too high.
But this is to focus on the negative. Even that great advocate for free speech, John Stuart Mill, admitted that limitations were sometimes necessary to keep the peace, but he also emphasised that there are things we need to say and, sometimes, to hear. And this is what really matters in a place dedicated to education. Allowing people freedom to say only what most people already believe is inadequate, not only because of its inherent constraints but also because we cannot assume we have nothing to learn. Others have to be free to challenge our views; the fact that an opinion is outside conventional wisdom is no reason to block our ears to it. And even if we reject it, we need to appreciate why an argument is being made and to challenge its rationale respectfully. A university that could not give a fair hearing to the modern equivalents of Socrates or Galileo would be a poor place of learning.
The politicians and commentators who are exercised about all of this would do well to listen to the students who don’t make headlines. For the other important lesson I have learned is not to underestimate their extraordinary powers to heal. In my own university, I have witnessed this most powerfully in the solidarity between UK and international students displayed in reaction to the immigration crackdown. Their determination to celebrate what they learn from friends who are very different culturally from themselves – but in other ways so much the same – inspired them to post a series of shared selfies on Twitter, under the hashtag #StandByMe. They even held events in Parliament, including one memorable reception with an immigration minister, where their leader spoke powerfully about friendships, education and even love. It takes guts to speak sincerely of human connection in such a formal setting; a retired military commander in attendance looked me in the eye and said he saw courage and leadership.
That strength has taken my students into difficult places. When the killing of the soldier Lee Rigby by two Islamic extremists led to an increase in negative feelings towards Muslims, they rallied under the banner of “Don’t Let Hate Divide Us”. And they are right to recognise a risk. We live in a time of heightened tensions on all sides, when an 81-year-old Muslim grandfather can be attacked on his way to his local mosque, and later die of his injuries, and when some Jewish primary schools employ security guards because parents are fearful of attacks on little boys who wear a kippah.
In an international university with students who come from 100 countries, some of the learning is to see the world through other eyes. This arises out of what I regard as a deeper and more constructive free speech that promotes trust rather than conflict between different groups. I have seen for myself the true justification of the university ideal shown in the friendship between a Jewish president of the students’ union and a student from Gaza. And I have seen environmental activists make a case for disinvestment in fossil fuels with thoughtful dedication, winning understanding through sincere debate and persuasion rather than hectoring. We needed to hear them, and we did.
I will do all I can to maintain a campus on which such friendships can form, and such exchanges can happen. What I really fear is those who do not care about our students and their lives together seeking to use the campus as a platform for views that are lawful but not beneficial to our community. This includes those whose public addresses may be vicious or manipulative, but it also includes pundits who dismiss students’ sincere engagement with the great issues of their time to make easy political points.
I don’t want to protect my students from learning anything. But the most important things they will learn are from their family and friends. We know this to be one of the deep truths of life. And as, during their time at university, their idea of who can be in their family or circle of friends expands to cover the whole world, greater understanding of different points of view will naturally emerge.
A university is a place where diverse people live together. If students meet a transgender person and understand some of their suffering and joy, that is great. If they hear intolerant views about migrants but are then able to talk to a scholar from Syria, they will learn something. If they share a halal meal with a fellow student, who could persuade them that all Muslims are a threat?
I am reminded of the old Jewish joke in which two conflicting groups in a synagogue disagree about whether it is the correct tradition to stand or sit for prayers. To resolve the matter they agree to go together to see the oldest member of their community, now living in a residential home. “Moishe,” they ask, “tell us, is it our tradition to stand during prayers?” He answers that it is not. Half the group is jubilant. “So you agree, it is our tradition to sit during prayers?” they ask. “No,” he answers. The delegation is confused and protests: “But then everyone will be arguing, standing up, sitting down...” The old man smiles. “Ah,” he says, “that is our tradition.”
I am all for free speech as part of how we learn. But it is nowhere near enough. St Paul wrote that “all things are lawful but not all are beneficial”. But where is the boundary between what is lawful and what is beneficial? In the end, the responsibility sits with me to draw it, in line with my sacred duty to preserve our community of scholarship. I may not always be right; despite being a vice-chancellor, I am not yet claiming infallibility. But even if I am wrong, I will always act from the conviction that the greater prize is what builds the whole community.
Sir Keith Burnett is vice-chancellor of the University of Sheffield.
Register to continue
Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.
Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:
- Sign up for the editor's highlights
- Receive World University Rankings news first
- Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
- Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Or subscribe for unlimited access to:
- Unlimited access to news, views, insights & reviews
- Digital editions
- Digital access to THE’s university and college rankings analysis
- Unrestricted access to the UK and global edition of the THE app on IOS, Android and Kindle Fire
Already registered or a current subscriber? Sign in now