Free speech ‘adopted’ by hostile right to ‘discredit universities’

Berkeley chancellor issues warning at conference on New Nationalism and Universities

November 18, 2017
Milo Yiannopoulus surrounded by police
Source: Getty
Delayed appearance: Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Berkeley in September after his talk earlier this year was cancelled

The issue of free speech on campus “has been adopted by the alt-right” as a “narrative to discredit universities”, according to the University of California, Berkeley chancellor.

Carol Christ spoke on 17 November at a Berkeley-hosted conference on New Nationalism and Universities, which looked at the higher education impacts of political developments including the election of Donald Trump, Brexit and nationalist movements in Russia, Turkey and Hungary.

Berkeley (home to a 1960s Free Speech Movement originating on the Left that called for freedom of political expression on campus) has been targeted by far-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. He sought to generate outrage after his first planned speech at Berkeley, in February 2017, was cancelled by the university on safety grounds, leading Mr Trump to threaten to end Berkeley's federal funding.

Mr Yiannopoulos then planned a “Free Speech Week” in September at Berkeley, featuring right-wing speakers, but cancelled this himself after the university had planned for it to go ahead. Berkeley ensured that he was able to make a brief speech, which went ahead without event but with security costs to the public institution of about $800,000 (£605,000).

In the UK, some newspapers on the Right have attacked universities over the supposed suppression of free speech on campuses.

“Free speech has been adopted by the alt-right as one of its strategies to construct a narrative about universities that is extremely useful for their political goals,” Professor Christ said of US developments in her speech to the conference, hosted by Berkeley’s Center for Studies in Higher Education (CSHE), marking its 60th anniversary.

Mr Yiannopoulos’ Free Speech Week “was meant to really provoke the university into cancelling it” and thus to “support the narrative that he’s trying to create”, Professor Christ said. She added: “Well, we called his bluff and finally…Milo’s free speech movement collapsed with its own weight.”

Professor Christ said that it was “extraordinarily important for universities” to “support free speech”. “Not supporting free speech plays into a narrative of the far-right to discredit universities,” she added. “So it’s just extraordinarily important that we do not play that part in that narrative.”

The “best answer to hateful speech is more speech”, she said.

Henry Brady, dean of Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, summarised issues examined at the conference by outlining the ways in which nationalist movements were “threatening university finances” (citing the case of Brexit and UK universities’ access to European Union research funding), “threatening core principles of the university through provocations” (events at Berkeley), “controlling faculty hiring and promotion – in the most devastating case what’s happened in Turkey, where academics have just been wiped out [sacked], almost 6,000 of them”, and “threatening the existence of the university, as in the Central European University” in Hungary.

Professor Brady added: “New nationalists in America are trying to find a way to undermine our [universities’] reputation for free speech so they can undermine our credibility and perhaps, eventually, defund us.”

Russian economic nationalism ‘drives internationalisation efforts’ 

Russian economic nationalism is driving the internationalisation efforts of universities in the country, the New Nationalism and Universities conference at the University of California, Berkeley heard.

Isak Froumin, head of the Institute of Education at Moscow’s National Research University Higher School of Economics, has examined Russian government higher education policy between 2005 and the present. He told the conference that there had been “no attempts to introduce ideological education or any form of open ideological controls over universities”.

He drew a distinction between economic nationalism and political nationalism when it comes to Russian higher education, in a session on the theme of “Russian universities in the age of Putin”.

In the economic category, universities were considered as “drivers” of international competitiveness, resulting in the creation of the Russian government’s Academic Excellence Initiative and thus in greater international mobility for Russian academics and more international research links.

“This economic nationalism leads to greater internationalisation,” Professor Froumin said.

But he continued: “Russian political nationalism is strongly linked with populism…We, as social scientists, have to admit that it responds to some sentiments, conservative and anti-intellectual sentiments, that exist in Russian society. We, as university people, cannot ignore these sentiments.”

In her address, separate from the Russia session, Berkeley chancellor Carol Christ noted that, in many nations, the drive to create “world-class universities” is often “inseparable from nationalism”. She added: “I find that conjunction a really interesting conjunction between global ambitions and nationalist ambitions.”

A key question was “whether you can have a world-class university without academic freedom”, she said. “I believe that’s not possible.”

John Morgan

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