If culture wars are coming, autonomy cannot be surrendered

Open debate is right, but this mustn’t be dictated by politicians, says Chris Havergal

March 2, 2017
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland.
Source: Getty
A right fighter: Betsy DeVos, the US education secretary, told conservative students: ‘The faculty…tell you what to say…what to think’

Wherever you look in Western politics, it seems that the Right is in the ascendancy. This isn’t confined to Trumpism and Brexit – far-Right candidates are riding high in the polls, for example, ahead of elections in both France and the Netherlands.

These trends raise awkward questions for universities because, while they have long been bastions of liberal thinking, they have also presented themselves as being deeply rooted in their communities. What the past 12 months have revealed instead is a yawning divide between the views of higher education institutions and many of their neighbours.

So far, universities have largely been left to search for the answers to these questions by themselves. But now there are emerging signs that a newly emboldened Right might choose to confront head-on what its supporters perceive as bias against conservative researchers and students in the academy.

US education secretary Betsy DeVos’ call to conservative students to “fight” against the “silencing” of their free speech on campus, attempts in Iowa to achieve “partisan balance” when hiring professors, and a proposed investigation in the Netherlands into the “limitation of diversity of perspectives” in higher education could all be seen as the opening salvos in a new age of culture wars.

Universities might feel vulnerable in such a scenario. And it is important for a wide range of perspectives to be heard on campus, for it is only through debate that the apparent social isolation that higher education institutions are enduring can be bridged.

But this seems to be one topic where university leaders must be prepared to stand up and resist, because it is institutions’ autonomy that is central to their success, and to the discoveries that drive forward our economies and societies.

While the Right might be seizing the political prizes, universities should not feel too dislocated: Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in the US presidential election, and the 48 per cent who voted for the UK to stay in the European Union are only just in the minority.

These communities need a voice, too, and, with centrist and left-leaning political parties seemingly more divided and drifting than ever before, the case for academics to scrutinise populist politicians is stronger than ever before.


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