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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How the Standing Rock fight will continue

Bureaucratic ability to hold corporate interest account will be more necessary now than ever.

Fireworks lit up the sky in rural North Dakota on Sunday night, as protestors celebrated at what is being widely hailed as a major victory for rights activism.

After months spent encamped in tee-pees and tents on the banks of the Canonball river, supporters of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe finally received the news they’d been waiting for: the US Army Corps has not issued the Dakota Access pipeline with the permit it requires to drill under Lake Oahe.

“We […] commend with the utmost gratitude the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing" said a statement released by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s chairman, Dave Archambault II.

With the camp’s epic setting, social-media fame, and echoes of wider injustice towards Native Americans, the movement has already earned a place in the history books. You can almost hear the Hollywood scriptwriters tapping away.

But as the smoke settles and the snow thickens around the thinning campsite, what will be Standing Rock’s lasting legacy?

I’ve written before about the solidarity, social justice and environmental awareness that I think make this anti-pipeline movement such an important symbol for the world today.

But perhaps its most influential consequence may also be its least glamorous: an insistence on a fully-functioning and accountable bureaucratic process.

According to a statement from the US Army’s Assistant Secretary of Civil Words, the Dakota Access project must “explore alternate routes”, through the aid of “an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis”.

This emphasis on consultation and review is not big-statement politics from the Obama administration. In fact it is a far cry from his outright rejection of the Keystone Pipeline project in 2015. Yet it may set an even more enduring example.

The use of presidential power to reject Keystone, was justified on the grounds that America needed to maintain its reputation as a “global leader” on climate change. This certainly sent a clear message to the world that support from Canadian tar-sands oil deposits was environmentally unacceptable.

But it also failed to close the issue. TransCanada, the company behind Keystone, has remained “committed” to the project and has embroiled the government in a lengthy legal challenge. Unsurprisingly, they now hope to “convince” Donald Trump to overturn Obama’s position.

In contrast, the apparently modest nature of the government’s response to Dakota Access Pipeline may yet prove environmental justice’s biggest boon. It may even help Trump-proof the environment.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do”, said the Jo-Ellen Darcy, the Army’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Works.

Back in July, the same Army Corps of Engineers (which has jurisdiction over domestic pipelines crossing major waterways) waved through an environmental assessment prepared by the pipeline’s developer and approved the project. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe subsequently complained that the threat to its water supply and cultural heritage had not been duly considered. This month’s about-turn is thus vital recognition of the importance of careful and extensive public consultation. And if ever such recognition was needed it is now.

Not only does Donald Trump have a financial tie to the Energy Transfer Partners but the wider oil and gas industry also invested millions into other Republican candidate nominees. On top of this, Trump has already announced that Myron Ebell, a well known climate sceptic, will be in charge of leading the transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Maintaining the level of scrutiny finally granted for Standing Rock may not be easy under the new administration. Jennifer Baker, an attorney who has worked with tribes in South Dakota on pipeline issues for several years, fears that the ground gained may not last long. But while the camp at Standing Rock may be disbanding, the movement is not.

This Friday, the three tribes who have sued the Corps (the Yankont, Cheyenne River, and Standing Rock Sioux Tribes) will head to a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, seeking to increase pressure on the government to comply with both domestic and international law as it pertains to human rights and indigenous soveriegnty. 

What the anti-pipeline struggle has shown - and will continue to show - is that a fully accountable and transparent bureaucratic process could yet become the environment's best line of defence. That – and hope.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.