Academic staff suspended at Middlesex University

Three philosophers have been banned from entering university premises or contacting students.

The ongoing dispute over the future of Middlesex University's highly regarded philosophy department was ratcheted up a notch on Friday, when students and three members of the academic staff -- Professors Peter Osborne, Peter Hallward and Christian Kerslake -- were suspended from the university, pending an investigation into their role in a second occupation at the university's Trent Park campus.

Protesters entered campus buildings on Thursday 20 May and remained in the university library from 6.45pm until 8am the following morning, in a sit-in that took place six days after a previous occupation ended following the granting of a high court injunction.

According to the Save Middlesex Philosophy blog, university management responded on Thursday by locking the doors of the main campus building and contacting the police, but when officers arrived it was decided that the injunction obtained by the university on 14 May did not apply to the sit-in, and protesters were permitted to stay.

However, the university today alleged that a second group of protesters "forcibly entered the building" during the evening, thereby breaching the injunction. In a statement released to the New Statesman today, a university spokesperson said:

The university has to intervene when protest is illegal or puts the health and safety of staff at risk. On Thursday 20 May, an occupation of the library at Trent Park occurred when a group of individuals refused to leave the building, and a further group forcibly entered the building, in breach of a High Court injunction granted to the university on 14 May. The previous occupation at Trent Park resulted in assaults and injuries to members of staff who were legitimately trying to safeguard the staff and students who were working in the buildings.

The fight to save Middlesex's philosophy department is one front in a wider struggle, as university administrations find themselves forced to make substantial cuts after the government reduced the higher education budget by half a billion pounds.

The decision to suspend Osborne, Hallward and Kerslake from their posts has triggered a flurry of letters of condemnation from fellow academics.

In a letter dated 21 May, Graham Harman, associate professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, wrote:

With yesterday's suspensions of Professors Hallward [and] Osborne, and several students, I fear we are seeing a merely vindictive gesture that threatens genuine long-term damage to your institution. We have heard of "outlaw nations", but never of "outlaw universities". Yet the possible danger now arises of Middlesex becoming just such a pariah. Your administrators did nothing yesterday but turn Hallward and Osborne into international martyrs. Even if all ethics and justice were taken out of the picture, the suspensions are a clumsy overreaction in purely realpolitik terms. Please: it is not too late for cooler heads to prevail.

John Protevi, professor of French studies at Louisiana State University, also wrote to the governing body, claiming that administrators were "at risk of permanently besmirching the reputation of your university" and that "an organised boycott is a real possibility at this point".

Asked how management had come to the decision to close the philosophy department at Middlesex, despite its record of achievement, the university's spokesperson said: "The university consulted at length with the staff involved for six months prior to making its decision.

"Members of the executive also conducted several meetings with philosophy staff after the decision had been made."

You can follow the campaign to save Middlesex's philosophy department by clicking here.

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Labour is a pioneer in fighting sexism. That doesn't mean there's no sexism in Labour

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

I’m in the Labour party to fight for equality. I cheered when Labour announced that one of its three Budget tests was ensuring the burden of cuts didn’t fall on women. I celebrated the party’s record of winning rights for women on International Women’s Day. And I marched with Labour women to end male violence against women and girls.

I’m proud of the work we’re doing for women across the country. But, as the Labour party fights for me to feel safer in society, I still feel unsafe in the Labour party.

These problems are not unique to the Labour party; misogyny is everywhere in politics. You just have to look on Twitter to see women MPs – and any woman who speaks out – receiving rape and death threats. Women at political events are subject to threatening behaviour and sexual harassment. Sexism and violence against women at its heart is about power and control. And, as we all know, nowhere is power more highly-prized and sought-after than in politics.

While we campaign against misogyny, we must not fall into the trap of thinking Labour is above it; doing so lets women members down and puts the party in danger of not taking them seriously when they report incidents. 

The House of Commons’ women and equalities committee recently stated that political parties should have robust procedures in place to prevent intimidation, bullying or sexual harassment. The committee looked at this thanks to the work of Gavin Shuker, who has helped in taking up this issue since we first started highlighting it. Labour should follow this advice, put its values into action and change its structures and culture if we are to make our party safe for women.

We need thorough and enforced codes of conduct: online, offline and at all levels of the party, from branches to the parliamentary Labour party. These should be made clear to everyone upon joining, include reminders at the start of meetings and be up in every campaign office in the country.

Too many members – particularly new and young members – say they don’t know how to report incidents or what will happen if they do. This information should be given to all members, made easily available on the website and circulated to all local parties.

Too many people – including MPs and local party leaders – still say they wouldn’t know what to do if a local member told them they had been sexually harassed. All staff members and people in positions of responsibility should be given training, so they can support members and feel comfortable responding to issues.

Having a third party organisation or individual to deal with complaints of this nature would be a huge help too. Their contact details should be easy to find on the website. This organisation should, crucially, be independent of influence from elsewhere in the party. This would allow them to perform their role without political pressures or bias. We need a system that gives members confidence that they will be treated fairly, not one where members are worried about reporting incidents because the man in question holds power, has certain political allies or is a friend or colleague of the person you are supposed to complain to.

Giving this third party the resources and access they need to identify issues within our party and recommend further changes to the NEC would help to begin a continuous process of improving both our structures and culture.

Labour should champion a more open culture, where people feel able to report incidents and don't have to worry about ruining their career or facing political repercussions if they do so. Problems should not be brushed under the carpet. It takes bravery to admit your faults. But, until these problems are faced head-on, they will not go away.

Being the party of equality does not mean Labour is immune to misogyny and sexual harassment, but it does mean it should lead the way on tackling it.

Now is the time for Labour to practice what it preaches and prove it is serious about women’s equality.

Bex Bailey was on Labour’s national executive committee from 2014 to 2016.