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27 February 2024

Academics can no longer speak freely

Solving this crisis in higher education should transcend the division between the right and the left.

By Edward Skidelsky

For many years, left-wing opinion-makers have told us that there is no crisis of free speech in British universities, that the whole idea is a fiction put about by right-wing bigots upset that they can no longer sound off with impunity, or by politicians and journalists intent on stirring up a culture war. To quote Nesrine Malik, writing in the Guardian in 2019, “the purpose of the free-speech-crisis myth is…to blackmail good people into ceding space to bad ideas”.

Anyone who works in a university knows that this is balderdash. The crisis in academia is of course a godsend to the right, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t also real and serious. Indeed, it is much more serious than most people realise. High-profile cancellations are what make the headlines, but they are merely the occasional effect of something deeper: the capture of entire sections of the academic bureaucracy by ideological lobbies, which insist on imposing their beliefs on all and sundry. We have seen this sort of thing before. 

“Books, newspapers, official communications and forms issued by administrative departments – all swam in the same brown sauce,” wrote the German philologist Victor Klemperer, referring to the monotony of thought and language in Hitler’s Reich. The sauce is no longer brown, but apart from that, Klemperer could be describing a modern British university.   

But if this is the case, why do we not hear more about it from academics themselves? The reasons are complex. Some academics believe in the new agenda. Some see it as a route to personal advancement. But most, I suspect, are simply reluctant to say anything against it for fear of damaging their careers. Academics in general are a craven lot, for all their bold talk of “questioning authority”. There are good sociological reasons for this. Academics live or die by the judgement of their peers – a small group of people all known to each other personally. Of all professionals, they have particular reason to guard their words and actions:

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.

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Thus wrote Yeats of the “Scholars” in 1914. Since then, universities have been transformed from cosy self-governing clubs into administrative despotisms, intensifying greatly the pressure to conform. Now academics have to worry not only about censorious peers but also officious line managers rapping them on the knuckles for remarks that “bring the institution into disrepute”. No wonder most of them keep quiet.  

What can be done to break this spell of silence? Last month, the Committee for Academic Freedom, a new organisation for the defence of free speech in universities, sent out a form to all its signatories asking them to report, anonymously, on their experiences of censorship. The response was an outpouring of frustration and anger:

We never ever talk about the discipline we are working on, at least never seriously. Instead, we have meetings upon meetings and training courses upon training courses on equality, inclusivity, gender, and so on.

The department is littered with posters for diversity initiatives. It is an oppressive environment which makes absolutely clear that dissent will not be tolerated.

It is a requirement of my dept that lecturers take courses in unconscious bias, active bystander (aka Stasi) training and other similar courses. Being promoted is dependent on completing these.

One might dismiss all this as mere lip service. But lip service is itself demeaning, and can easily pave the way for a more complete submission. Many universities are now pressing to “embed EDI” (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion) not just in extramural training courses but in all areas of teaching and research. Some take disciplinary action against staff members who question the orthodoxy:

I know of cases where people have been investigated for having contrarian (but reasonable and legal) views by management or have been bullied by colleagues/students, with management turning a blind eye.

I was put through a nine-months disciplinary investigation after challenging certain tenets of critical race theory in our school’s EDI committee.

Such institutional oppression can lead to a certain camaraderie of the oppressed. Something like this happened in Brezhnev’s Russia. But not in modern British universities. Here, anyone who falls out of official favour is swiftly ostracised by his or her colleagues.

Since the scandal broke I’ve been shunned by nearly all my colleagues, including many who I thought were my friends.

I have definitely noticed I don’t get invited to things. It’s insidious – you have no obligation to invite people to events or to collaborate on grants etc, so you don’t know if it’s paranoia or real, but I’m pretty sure the invitations have dropped off.

Given such treatment, it is unsurprising that many academics keep their more “toxic” views to themselves:

I’m careful to avoid topics around students and colleagues.

I live in fear of conflict… I know other colleagues feel similarly.

There’s a pervading sense that you must “keep your head down” if you want to get on.

How representative are such statements? The 95 survey participants had all signed the Committee for Academic Freedom’s “three principles”, so were not a random cross-section of UK academics as a whole. 

Nonetheless, their comments shine a rare light on what must be a far more widespread experience. They make it impossible to maintain the fiction that the free-speech crisis in our universities is an invention of the right-wing press. 

Edward Skidelsky is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Exeter. He is the director of the Committee for Academic Freedom.

[See also: Journal of an American plague year]

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