Academics attacked by pro-Brexit campaigners for having been “co-opted” by the European Union to deliver a pro-Brussels message through a programme of funded posts have defended themselves against charges of bias.
The EU-funded Jean Monnet programme, which supports academic chairs and research centres across Europe, is a bone of contention for Brexit campaigners who believe that Brussels is “fostering an academic cadre to explore the progress of European integration rather than to question it”.
“The problem is similar to Riyadh funding Islamic studies programmes abroad, or Moscow funding Russian studies in British universities: the threat of inherent bias,” the pro-Brexit group Business for Britain has argued.
The Jean Monnet programme, named after one of the founding fathers of the EU, is designed to promote teaching on and research into European integration. It involves more than 1,700 academics and more than a quarter of a million students every year.
More than 800 universities in 78 countries offer Jean Monnet modules about the EU, according to the European Commission.
To apply for a Jean Monnet chair, worth up to €50,000 (£38,000) over three years, professors agree to teach a minimum of 90 hours on EU-related subjects over this period and to carry out research or organise events.
Helen Drake, a professor of French and European studies at Loughborough University who was made a Jean Monnet chair in 2013, defended the programme, saying that she encouraged full student discussions about the EU, including debates about its alleged democratic deficit and “of course” on whether the organisation is fundamentally unreformable, as some critics claim.
She has also organised a debate for and against Brexit where her students were required to argue seriously for both sides, although in the end they were “almost unanimous” in their support of remaining in the EU.
Robert Ackrill, a professor at Nottingham Trent University who won a Jean Monnet chair to support teaching on the economics of the EU, said that there was “nothing” in the application process “that requires us to show we have delivered pro-EU views”.
The award money is used to support teaching and research, he said. “I receive no money from the chair into my pocket.”
“The real problem here is that because we teach and research on the EU, we know what we are talking about – and we know when others talk rubbish,” he said.
EU guidelines on applying for the chairs do not appear to explicitly dictate what political slant applicants must have, although a handbook describes one of the aims of the Jean Monnet programme as to create “increased interest in understanding and participating in the European Union”.
A spokesman for Vote Leave pointed to an essay written in 2014 by Joseph Weiler, a Jean Monnet chaired professor at New York University law school and president of the European University Institute in Florence, in which he stated that “part of our mission as [a] Jean Monnet Professor is to disseminate the values of European integration”.
The EU Commission “think of us openly as intellectual ambassadors of the Union and its values”, he wrote in The Future of EU Studies, a report of the 2014 Jean Monnet conference.
“Most of us become Jean Monnet professors because, in complicated ways, we believe in European integration,” he wrote. “It is not only a professional commitment to many of us, but also a kind of credo; for example, when the European Union is criticised, our instinct is to defend it.”
But he also said that this instinct was sometimes in “contradiction” with Jean Monnet professors’ academic commitment to “dispassionate critical enquiry, without partisan political bias”.