Show a red card or just play on?

March 24, 2006

What should you do when a colleague expresses controversial and offensive views? You must take academic freedom into account, says Harriet Swain, but also take notes, tread warily and act collectively

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 delicate dilemma for academics. When is the right time to start raising more than eyebrows if confronted by a colleague with extreme or controversial views?

Early, says Ronnie Wilson, head of the psychology department at Ulster University, where Richard Lynn is an emeritus professor. Lynn's work concentrates on race and gender differences in IQ and 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 as soon as possible. "A head of department or head of school shouldn't take unilateral action without consulting senior colleagues and coming to a joint decision," 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.

"You have to try to appreciate the concept of academic freedom, and freedom of speech has to be taken into account, but if he was expressing something that was going to offend a large number of our students and the public as a whole and there was no scientific basis to this 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 - in their conduct and in the way they communicate their academic work. We pay academics a professional salary and we should expect professional conduct, which includes social responsibility."

Students or staff who have cause for a formal complaint against an individual need to discuss the matter with others 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 - laboratory technicians, for instance -had behaved in this way and spoken to students in the way that he did, it would have been obvious which human resources policies to invoke and it wouldn't have been seen as acceptable." She says academic freedom can also be distracting. "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 you should not try to engage with an individual expressing extreme racist views on the validity or otherwise of the arguments, as it legitimises racist ideology.

"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.

And you should not allow the person to present him or herself as an heroic defender of unpalatable truths that are widely thought but rarely articulated. "Bring the issue and the individual out into the open," he says. "Organise meetings in conjunction with the staff and student unions to explain why such expressions of extreme racism should not be afforded the right of freedom of expression."

He says that you need to ask pointed questions of senior managers since they have a responsibility to ensure that all staff and students can go about their business free from intimidation. "Ask the university to investigate the key pedagogic questions," he says. "How can someone with such views treat all students equally? What is the status and pedagogic aim of teaching racist material? Is this individual competent to hold an academic position of such responsibility?"

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. This had become particularly necessary for the university because the case had been aired in a national newspaper. 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, rather than separate actions by staff and students, 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 the current climate where free speech is being eroded in all sorts of ways, it's important to avoid a response that calls for disciplinary action."

TOP TIPS

  • Get senior management involved
  • Decide whether the views expressed have any legitimacy
  • Decide whether they affect teaching competence
  • Make your objections public
  • Act with other staff and students

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