What were the lessons learnt from the case of Frank Ellis - the university lecturer suspended after claiming black people were intellectually inferior to whites?

November 2, 2006

That was the question debated by higher education panellists at an event hosted last week by the University and College Union as part of Black History Month. Up for discussion were topics such as academic freedom, racial prejudice and the power of the lecturer.

Panellists included Gargi Bhattacharyya, reader in cultural studies at Birmingham University; Dennis Hayes, joint president of the University and College Union; and Ruqayyah Collector, National Union of Students black students officer.

Dr Ellis, an expert in Russian and Slavonic studies at Leeds University, sparked intense debate about academic freedom after he told his institution's student newspaper that he supported a theory that whites were generally more intelligent than non-whites.

The 53-year-old, who described himself as an "unrepentant Powellite", was suspended in March when his comments were examined by West Yorkshire Police. He has since taken early retirement. The university agreed to pay him a year's salary and to make a contribution towards his legal costs.

Leeds was the first university to suspend a lecturer under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act of 2000, which requires public bodies to give due regard to the need "to promote equality of opportunity and good relations between persons of different racial groups".

Dennis Hayes. Academic freedom is paramount

"The Frank Ellis case reminded us that universities are special institutions in which you pursue truth. This necessitates absolute freedom of speech, in all circumstances.

"Academics mustn't be made to feel that if they don't say the right thing they will be booted out.

"I think we have learnt that we should have had a platform for Ellis's views to be ridiculed. His views were rejected, but there could have been more of an intellectual debate. Leeds could have had a serious debate about racism with anti-racism speakers, for example.

"The institution saw banning, rather than arguing, as the way forward. By banning people such as Ellis, rather than discussing the issues with them, you diminish the notion of a university. We have to bring back the debate, even when what we are debating makes us feel uncomfortable."

Ruqayyah Collector. Students' rights above academic freedom

"The fact that Frank Ellis isn't teaching any more reassures many black students at universities - and we need to think of them first.

"They shouldn't have to wait until there is obvious discrimination against them to bring a case such as Frank Ellis's forward.

"I disagree with Dennis. I don't think this is a case of academic freedom.

This is about students feeling they have the right to study without the fear of discrimination.

"A lecturer has a lot of legitimacy and credibility. Frank Ellis was in a position to influence many people. I believe Leeds University acted in the correct way.

"I think one lesson we could learn from this, however, is that staff and students need to be more aware of their rights when it comes to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act."

Gargi Bhattacharyya. Even the Frank Ellises of this world deserve fair representation

"I think one lesson learnt is the need for trade unions to vociferously commit to academic freedom and, at the same time, not sacrifice the principles of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act.

"The only way to do that is to ensure that even lecturers such as Frank Ellis get fair representation, despite the fact that they may be saying things that we find unpalatable.

"The increasing student population means there is less chance for individual interaction between a student and an academic. Academics are becoming more distant as far as students are concerned.

"The Ellis case shows that academics must, now more than ever, be careful about the way they portray themselves. A student may not get the chance to talk to them in person about it."

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