Dealing with controversial colleagues

When a colleague expresses controversial and offensive views, must take academic freedom into account – but also take notes, tread warily and act collectively

January 3, 2008

The recent case of Frank Ellis, the Leeds University lecturer who publicly stated that black people are, on average, less intelligent than white people, touches on a dilemma for academics. When is the right time to start raising more than eyebrows if confronted by a colleague with extreme views?

Early, says Ronnie Wilson, head of the psychology department at Ulster University, where Richard Lynn is an emeritus professor. Lynn's work argues that men have a higher average IQ than women and that Oriental people on average have higher intelligence than people of European origin.

Wilson says that if a colleague starts expressing such controversial views a high-level meeting needs to be held. “A head of department or head of school shouldn't take unilateral action without consulting senior colleagues,” he advises.

In making this decision, you have to weigh fairness to an individual against the university's reputation, he says. In Lynn's case, they felt that since his work had been published in peer-reviewed journals, he had some scientific credibility.

“Freedom of speech has to be taken into account, but if he was expressing something that was going to offend a large number of students and the public and there was no scientific basis you would have to consider disciplinary action,” he says.

Social responsibility should also come into it, argues Jane Hopton, a former student of Christopher Brand, who was dismissed as a psychology lecturer by Edinburgh University after calling himself a scientific racist and suggesting in an internet newsletter that some forms of child sex are not harmful.

Hopton says: “I think we should expect people to pursue academic freedom and to be socially responsible. We pay academics a professional salary and we should expect professional conduct.”

Students or staff should discuss the matter and decide whether a collective response would be more effective than pursuing the case as an individual, she says. They also need to take notes of specific incidents and comments for use in any possible future disciplinary procedure.

Hopton says the concept of academic freedom is a privilege that can be abused. “In the case of Brand, if non-academics had behaved in this way, it would have been obvious which human resources policies to invoke. And if the focus had been on his teaching ability, again I think there would have been an obvious competence issue.”

Ian McDonald, senior lecturer in sociology at the Chelsea School, Brighton University, says: “There is no place in the academy to discuss the merits of pseudoscientific views that have long been proven to be intellectually flawed,” he says.

Nor should you allow the person to present him or herself as an heroic defender of unpalatable truths. “Bring the issue and the individual out into the open,” he says. “Organise meetings with the staff and student unions to explain why such expressions of extreme racism should not be afforded the right of freedom of expression.”

But the notion of academic freedom is still an important one, argues Andrew Chitty, lecturer in philosophy at Sussex University and one of the organisers of a public meeting to protest against the inflammatory views on racial differences that Geoffrey Sampson, professor of natural language computing at Sussex, published on his website in 2001.

“I think it's very important that people's views are defended, no matter how objectionable they are,” Chitty says.

He organised the meeting not to try to spark disciplinary action against Sampson but because he felt it was important to make a point. If no meeting had been held, he says, it could have been interpreted as the university thinking the views were acceptable.

For this reason, he says the best kind of response is a collective one, and there should be a statement from the vice-chancellor.

“You don't want someone to be able to spout off overtly racist views as a member of the university and the university not to say anything about it, because that counts as acquiescence,” Chitty says. “But in a climate where free speech is being eroded, it's important to avoid a response that calls for disciplinary action.”

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