Is it better to kick out or confront racists?

June 14, 2002

The extremist views of some staff and students have made headlines recently. Harriet Swain asks how such opinions should be addressed on university campuses.

This is supposed to be the age of apathy in universities, but since September 11, world events have found their echo on university campuses, whether in terms of increased hostilities between Israeli and Muslim students or the resurgence of cases involving students or lecturers with far-right views. How should universities deal with people holding such strong opinions? Should extremist views - whether held by lecturers or students - be barred from the lecture room, or is university the very place for confronting them?

It is an issue that excites heated emotions. Members of the Anti-Nazi League at the University of Greenwich, for example, have called for the expulsion of politics student Lawrence Rustem after it emerged that he was a senior member of the British National Party. At Leeds University, students and lecturers have complained about the presence of another BNP member, Matthew Collett, and college lecturers' union Natfhe is still considering how to react to Carol Hughes, who is taking a part-time course at Burnley College and was recently elected BNP councillor in the town. Most recently, staff and students at Sussex University have joined in heated discussions over the future of Geoffrey Sampson, a professor of natural language computing who wrote an article titled "There's nothing wrong with racism".

Two cases from the 1980s and 1990s illustrate the difficulties that universities can face in dealing with extremists. In 1984, Patrick Harrington, a National Front activist at North London Polytechnic, now North London University, obtained a court order banning demonstrations that prevented him from attending lectures. The National Front photographed people who defied the order and applied to have them imprisoned. Students refused to attend lectures, occupied buildings and were barred from others. For a short period, the polytechnic was crawling with police and barely functioning.

The other case, dating from the mid-1990s, involved psychology lecturer Chris Brand, who was sacked from Edinburgh University in 1997, although he was later paid £12,000 in an out-of-court settlement. He had claimed that black people were less intelligent than whites and that paedophilia was acceptable in some cases. He says that at least his lectures were never boring. "In psychology, what could be more important than sex, race and intelligence?" he asks. "I have always thought that any academic subject worth teaching would involve controversy. If it didn't, there wouldn't be any point in going to university."

But Jane Hopton, a research psychologist at Edinburgh and a former student of Brand's, says that this argument is disingenuous in Brand's case. For her, it was more than just his extremely controversial views that caused offence. "He was notoriously sexist, and women students felt there was a lot of innuendo in his approach in terms of the subjects he chose to talk about. The really outrageous statements were not the ones that had the most negative impact because everyone could see those for what they were. It was the run-of-the-mill comments that caused the problems." In protest, alternative lectures were organised.

Far from encouraging debate, Brand's extremist views and sexism put people off engaging in discussion with him, Hopton says. "(My) class was about 85 per cent women, so I don't know if any of the women wanted to draw attention to themselves by engaging in a stimulating debate with him. I just wanted to keep out of it."

In the wake of the recent cases, the Association of University Teachers is considering drafting a policy on teaching students with extremist views. On this issue, its main concern is personal safety and in this, racist views are unique, says Gargi Bhattacharyya, chair of the AUT's equal opportunities committee. She says she has not received complaints about teaching students with other kinds of extreme or controversial views.

The National Union of Students, which has a "no-platform" policy for racists or fascists, takes a similar position on personal safety. "The campus should be an environment that is safe for all students," an NUS spokesman says. "If there was a lecturer with racist views, it would probably be difficult for some students to feel confident about being taught by that person, and we would support any student who was unhappy for this reason."

One problem is that the threat of intimidation is not always direct. A prominent member of the Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Society at Leeds, who used to study with Collett, is concerned about his name appearing in print because he says that although Collett does not seem that intimidating himself, he is worried about the wider impact of his views on members of minority groups. "People always stand up for freedom of speech, but there are other freedoms, too," he says.

An ethnic minority student taught by Sampson also wants to remain anonymous, but for different reasons. He thinks that Sampson should be free to express his views although he disagrees with them, but he is afraid of the reaction of leftwing students to his opinion.

In many cases, though, rightwing extremists tend not to voice their views in class. At Leeds, Collett seems to have mostly kept his opinions to himself, although the LGB student says of his conduct in class: "At least he contributed, unlike a lot of people." It took three years for Greenwich students to learn of Rustem's far-right links, and then it was only after a television programme revealed them.

Kate Soper, one of Patrick Harrington's philosophy lecturers, said she once tried to argue with him about his views on race, but he clammed up. Jim Grant, branch secretary of Natfhe at the time, says Harrington "didn't, on the whole, raise his views", adding that staff were reluctant to confront him because "the future of the institution was at stake at that point". Legally, they could not teach him separately, although because students boycotted classes he was in, this was in effect what happened. "Our policy was that he should be taught, but that we couldn't encourage other students who might feel threatened to sit in a class with him," Grant says.

Some subjects attract particularly strong views, and this is not necessarily negative. "I am the lucky one," says Andreas Christmann, lecturer in Islamic studies at the University of Manchester. "I have students who are really interested, who come with a baggage of prejudices and views and experiences and really want to learn or really want to confirm their prejudices. It is always quite an emotional class. It is never indifferent." He says there is always a group of students that wants to use the seminars as platforms from which to spread their ideas. "It takes me two months to get through to the more fundamentalist students and persuade them to listen to what I have to say and perhaps to what historians of religion have to say about their religion. Every seminar is like a battlefield." As the course goes on, he says, students who kept quiet at the beginning start to speak out, often balancing the more extremist voices.

But in other subjects involving issues that bitterly divide opinion, there is no such exchange. Dominic Bryan, who teaches Irish studies at Queen's University, Belfast, says he has had little experience of heated debate. He puts that down to the tendency in Northern Ireland to abide by the maxim "whatever you say, say nothing". Although his classes tend to be made up overwhelmingly of people from Northern Ireland, he says the contributions by students from outside the province tend to be out of all proportion to their numbers.

Whether faced with a silent class or one full of impassioned and persistent speakers, lecturers can walk a tightrope in dealing with sensitive issues. Christmann says he always tries to keep a balance between the groups in his class, which tend to break down as a third Muslim, a third Jewish and a third Christian or atheist. But he never encourages students to speak specifically because of their background. He also emphasises the usefulness of academic objectivity.

Bryan does the same, using examples from all over the world - such as comparing Orange parades with Madagascan circumcision rituals, "which always goes down a storm". "People often criticise universities for being ivory towers. But in some senses, if you have a lot of conflict in a place, you need walls around you to feel safe."

In Sampson's case, his student says he has "separated his teaching ability from his opinions", and he is confident that his work has been marked fairly. "If my work is good enough, I expect to get a good mark. My IQ shouldn't really come into it," he says. "I believe he (Sampson) should be allowed to express his opinion even if people might not like it."

Andrew Chitty - a lecturer in philosophy at Sussex, who organised a forum to discuss Sampson's article - says it must be difficult for many black and Asian students to feel they will be treated impartially. He argues that Sussex's international nature makes Sampson's article an issue that must be addressed. But although the forum attracted more than 200 people and much follow-up internet debate, Chitty suggests that apathy may not yet be dead:

"Everyone is coping with sitting or marking exams at the moment. It may end up just fading away."

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