Bid to oust don is 'witch-hunt'

March 2, 2007

Student call to sack Oxford academic over his affiliations have prompted colleagues to rally to his support and reignited debate over academic freedom. Rebecca Attwood reports.

Academics have condemned a campaign to oust a don from Oxford University, calling it a "student witch-hunt."

David Coleman, a professor of demography at Oxford and co-founder of the think-tank Migration Watch UK, has become the target of a student campaign to force him out of the university over his affiliations.

A petition launched by Oxford Student Action for Refugees cites his involvement in the think-tank and his fellowship of the Galton Institute, formerly the Eugenics Society, as reasons Oxford should "consider the suitability of Coleman's continued tenure as a professor of the university".

In a fresh row that has reignited the debate about academic freedom and free speech on campus Professor Coleman's colleagues this week condemned the campaign and said that if the students took issue with his affiliations or views they should be entering into a debate with Professor Coleman rather than mounting a personal attack.

Roy Harris, emeritus professor of general linguistics at Oxford, said:

"Demanding Professor Coleman's dismissal forecloses the debate that the student witch-hunters claim to be seeking. They seem to have learnt nothing from their Oxford education so far."

Dennis Hayes, president of the University and College Union and founder of the campaign group Academics for Academic Freedom, agreed. He said: "The students should be arguing with Professor Coleman, not calling for sackings."

Kieran Hutchinson Dean, a student at Wadham College, Oxford, who organised the petition, said: "We understand that not everyone is going to agree with our position, but we want to open a debate."

Critics of the think-tank accuse the organisation of using statistics to attack multicultural Britain.

Migration Watch says it has no links to any political party or organisation. On its website, it says it "recognise(s) that many immigrants have made a valuable contribution to our society in terms of both skills and diversity", but claims that "massive immigration is contrary to the interests of all sections of our community, adding to the problems of both overcrowding and integration".

The Galton Institute is a charity that derives from the Eugenics Education Society, founded in 1907 whose president was Sir Francis Galton. It describes itself as existing to promote and support the scientific study of human heredity and its social implications, and the ethical and moral implications of human genetics.

Its website says the organisation "does not seek to advocate particular applications of scientific understanding or reproductive technology".

Writer and antiracism campaigner Teresa Hayter recently pulled out of an event at King's College London when she discovered that Professor Coleman would be appearing alongside her. She claimed that Migration Watch's statistics had "the clear intention of stirring up racism and hostility towards immigrants".

She told The Times Higher : "I support the petition. I don't think he should be a professor at the university."

Between 1985 and 1987 Professor Coleman worked for the British Government as the special advisor to the Home Secretary and then to the ministers of housing and the environment.

Professor Coleman, who declined to comment this week, told the student newspaper Cherwell: "There are aspects of eugenics that are regularly practised by the medical profession today, for example abortion of foetuses that show signs of severe disability. Other aspects are deplorable."

He said of the petition: "It is a shameful attempt, of the most intolerant and totalitarian kind, to suppress the freedom of analysis and informed comment that it is the function of universities to cherish.

"I am ashamed that Oxford students should behave this way. It is the signatories who will bring the university into disrepute, and it is they who should reconsider their membership of this university."

An Oxford spokeswoman said that freedom of speech was a fundamental right respected by the university.

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