Right to speak is threatened

November 2, 2007

Melanie Newman reports from the Battle of Ideas on the alleged 'castration' of academic freedom. Academics came under attack for failing to defend their right to freedom of speech and academic freedom at the Battle of Ideas festival this week.

Panellists and delegates at the Institute of Ideas' annual event described a "castrated" academe that has meekly relinquished professional rights and is too scared to challenge accepted ideas.

Describing the "threat from within", panellist John Fitzpatrick, senior lecturer at Kent Law School, recalled how he had recently questioned the benefit of an environmental initiative at his university. "A colleague approached me afterwards and said that he agreed, and that he would have said something, but 'it would have been like standing up in Harrods and saying he was glad Diana had died'," Mr Fitzpatrick said. "To speak out against the environmental agenda is seen as a badge of courage."

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at Kent University, said that he was frequently contacted by academics who agreed with his views but who feel they cannot be seen to be doing so. "I say: 'We're not in Stalinist Russia or Nazi Germany.' Others say they are waiting until they retire so that they can speak out. They are in the business of self-censorship," Professor Furedi said.

Student apathy can be explained in part by the stifling of controversial views in the classroom, suggested Richard Reynolds, a University of East Anglia undergraduate and founder of the group Student Academics for Academic Freedom. "Castrated academics are boring," he said. "It's not good enough to say: 'I wish I could say that.'"

In some ways, today's academics are freer than they have ever been, argued panellist Alex Gourevitch, a researcher in political science at Columbia University. US academics are no longer expected to take loyalty oaths, he pointed out, but there were still pressures.

The recasting of students as vulnerable people who need protecting from potentially offensive speech was one facet of the erosion of academic freedom, Mr Gourevitch said. He pointed to Columbia's recent invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to deliver its Distinguished Guest Lecture, which was heavily criticised on the grounds that the President's views were too offensive.

One of the few dissenting voices in the debate came from a student who complained that his English tutor required him to read a novel by Philip Roth, in which a man beats his wife and, in doing so, defecates. He did not want to read such material, the student argued, but if he did not do so he would fail that part of his course.

"You have no right not to be offended," Mr Reynolds told the student. "That is a deeply regressive concept."

Steve Fuller, professor of sociology at Warwick University, argued that one of academia's roles is to teach students how debate can lead to enlightenment. Expertise in a subject is irrelevant; what matters is the ability to frame an argument.

"Academic freedom is a 'guild' right," he said. "The ability to argue a case, whatever its content, represents the tools of the trade." That ability required institutional protection that academics did not have, he said, suggesting that the abolition of tenure had constrained staff's willingness to speak out.

He pointed to the case of biochemist and Nobel prizewinner James Watson, who was recently sacked for suggesting that race and intelligence were related. "It has been said that Watson spoke outside his area of expertise," said Professor Fuller. "If academics could only speak in the narrow area of their expertise nobody would speak out about anything."

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

CALL FOR DEBATE ON ISRAEL BOYCOTT

The University and College Union at Kent University has passed a motion criticising the union's national executive for curtailing a debate on a proposed academic boycott of Israel. The executive called off local and regional debates, which were set up to fulfil a motion passed at this year's annual congress, after receiving legal advice that a boycott would be illegal. Kent UCU's motion said that the union had "a right to discuss important relevant issues openly". Branch president John Fitzpatrick said: "I speak as a fierce opponent of the boycott (but) at a time when academic freedom is threatened this sends the worst possible message." Malcolm Keight, head of UCU's higher education committee said: "We received strong legal advice that we should not be applying UCU resources to this debate."

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