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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Empty highs: why throwaway plastic goes hand in hand with bankrupt consumerism

We are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff.

A University of California study revealed this week that mankind has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s, with almost all of it ending up in landfill or the ocean. With the terrible effects of our decades-long addiction to throwaway packaging becoming increasingly apparent, it’s clear that a fresh approach is needed.

In April 2010, David Cameron set out his vision for Britain in the Conservative Party’s manifesto. Keen to show that the Tories had turned away from the "I’m Alright Jack" individualism of the 1980s, Cameron sought to fashion a softer, more inclusive brand.

The good society, Cameron argued, embraced much higher levels of personal, professional, civic and corporate responsibility. There was such a thing as society, and we’d all do well to talk to our neighbours a bit more. The Big Society, however, was roundly derided as a smokescreen for an aggressive tightening of the Government purse strings. And on the advice of his 2015 election fixer Lynton Crosby, Cameron later dropped it in favour of well-worn lines about economic security and jobs.   

While most would argue that the Big Society failed to amount to much, Cameron was at least right about one thing. We are happiest when we are part of something bigger than ourselves. No matter how much the credit card companies try to convince us otherwise, mindless individualism won’t make us nearly as contented as we’re led to believe by big conglomerates.

By any measure, we are in the throes of a terrible addiction to stuff. As a nation, we have run up unsecured debts of more than £350bn, which works out at £13,000 per household. Fuelled by a toxic mix of readily available credit and interest rates at historic lows, we cripple ourselves financially to feel the empty high derived from acquiring yet more stuff.

Purchasing has become a leisure pursuit, ensuring the rate at which we acquire new stuff exceeds the rate at which we can find somewhere to put it. Burdened with ever increasing amounts of stuff, consumers are forced to outsource their storage. The UK didn’t have a self-storage industry 30 years ago, but now it is the largest in Europe.

With the personal debt mountain soaring, we’d all do well to realise that we will never have enough of something we don’t need.

The growth of rampant consumerism has coincided with an explosion in demand for single-use plastic. Like the superfluous possessions we acquire, throwaway plastic packaging helps satisfy our desire to get exactly what we want without having any thought for the long-term consequences. Plastic packaging is easy and convenient, but ultimately, will do us immense harm.

In 1950, close to 1.5 million tonnes of plastic was produced globally. Today, the figure stands at more than 320 million tonnes. The vast majority of our plastic waste either ends up in landfill or the ocean, and our failure to kick the plastic habit has put is in the ludicrous position where there is set to be more plastic than fish in global seas by 2050.

There is also growing evidence that our penchant for endless throwaway plastic might be storing up serious health problems for our children later down the line. According to a University of Ghent study published earlier this year, British seafood eaters risk ingesting up to 11,000 pieces of plastic each year. The report followed UN warnings last year that cancer-causing chemicals from plastic are becoming increasingly present in the food chain.

Something must give. Unsustainable as our reliance on fast credit to finance ever more stuff, our addiction to plastic packaging is storing up serious problems for future generations. The instant gratification society, high on the dopamine rush that fades so quickly after acquiring yet another material asset, is doomed unless decisive action is forthcoming.

So what is to be done? The 2016 US documentary Minimalism points to a smarter way forward. Minimalism follows the lives of ordinary people who have shunned the rat race in favour of a simpler life with less stuff and less stress. The most poignant bit of the film features ex-broker AJ Leon recounting how he chose to forgo the glamour and riches of Wall Street for a simpler life. After a meteoric rise to the top of his profession, Leon decided to jack it all in for a more fulfilling existence.

While challenging the view that to be a citizen is to be a consumer is easier said than done, there are small changes that we can enact today that will make a huge difference. We simply have no choice but to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic that we can consume. If we don’t, we may soon have to contend with the ocean being home to more plastic than fish.

Like plastic, our bloated consumer culture is a disaster waiting to happen. There must be a better way.

Sian Sutherland is co-founder of campaign group A Plastic Planet which is campaigning for a plastic free-aisle in supermarkets.

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