Anna Fazackerley reports on an academic debate on extremism that led to public censure
A public debate held this week between an intelligence expert and a vice-chancellor over the question of extremism on campus became so personal that a senior police officer at the event accused the two of conducting "a war of handbags" between "middle-aged academics".
Anthony Glees, professor of politics at Brunel University, was invited to debate the severity of extremism in universities with Alasdair Smith, vice-chancellor of Sussex University, at a conference on Monday hosted by the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (Rusi).
The two men angered Special Branch police officers in the audience by using the platform to do battle over Professor Glees's research report, published last September, which claimed that universities were being used as recruiting grounds for extremists.
One high-level police officer told the two speakers: "My initial feeling is that this has been a war of handbags between two middle-aged academics.
"I'm not sure how serious the threat is, but certainly what I've heard today has not taken the matter forward. I am disappointed and dismayed."
Professor Glees opened the debate by saying that he would expose Universities UK for attacking him. He called for a public apology from Professor Smith on behalf of the vice-chancellors' group.
He said: "First UUK tried hard to say that there was no problem, that I was inventing it and please could I get lost."
He added: "The spin that UUK put on what I did was designed to make me withdraw visibly and go and boil my head.
"Unfortunately that is not what professors do if they are committed to a topic."
Professor Glees read out derogatory quotes from specific vice-chancellors, including Les Ebdon of Luton University, David Rhind of City University and Drummond Bone of Liverpool University (who is also UUK president).
He said that as well as attacking him publicly, one vice-chancellor wrote privately to the Brunel vice-chancellor urging him to sack Professor Glees.
Professor Glees concluded: "There is a problem (with extremism). I don't blame universities for waking up to it late. But I do blame UUK for trying to shoot the messenger."
Professor Smith responded: "In spite of Anthony's kind invitation, I am certainly not going to apologise for what UUK said."
He said that he was not going to suggest that extremism was not a problem in British universities. But he argued that the case had not yet been made that universities represented a particular threat to national security.
He derided the report's list of 24 universities where Professor Glees and his colleague Chris Pope said members of extremist or terrorist groups had been detected.
Professor Smith said: "I am being restrained with my language and I am not going to suggest that he boil his head or any other part of his anatomy, but I can only describe this as a ragbag list. Some names of terrorists associated with universities go back decades."
He said that one of the extremist students attributed to his own university had in fact attended a local further education college. He added: "We may have fallen on hard times, but we haven't yet become a further education college."