Stop pretending “challenging” homophobic professors is part of academic debate

Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson said her job wasn't to make students feel comfortable. 

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Speaking at a recent Times Higher Education summit, Oxford vice-chancellor Louise Richardson called for universities to “resist those who wanted to stop the airing of controversial views”, including students who express discomfort at being taught by homophobic professors.

She said: “I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don’t feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.

“And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable.’

“If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure out how a smart person can have views like that. Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do.”

Essentially, her answer boils down to: “Try to figure out why some very intelligent people might think you don’t deserve to exist, and then debate them about it.” This is not a reasonable request of anyone, much less of an 18-year-old towards whom tutors have a duty of pastoral care.

A university is not a soapbox. It is an educational institution with basic responsibilities to its students and staff, and there are some views – racism, homophobia and sexism among them – that universities simply should not tolerate.

By expecting students, especially those who identify as LGBTQ+, to challenge the homophobic or otherwise bigoted views expressed by staff, the vice-chancellor appears to be missing the point that they are there to engage undisturbed with the academic material of a class. Having to justify your right to love whoever you choose isn’t an academic exercise that you should have to carry out in order to be given an education.

There are also plenty of soapboxes already available to homophobes. One example is ITV's Good Morning Britain, where a man who claims he can “cure” the “sin” of homosexuality in gay men gets airtime, 50 years after homosexuality was decriminalised under the Sexual Offences Act of 1967. Or a large portion of the internet. 

Richardson’s advice to “work out how you can persuade him to change his mind” relies on the false assumption that hatred can be overcome by a sophisticated line of argument. It takes a special kind of arrogance to think that a “smart person” can only hate others based on their sexuality (or race, or religion) because no one has debated them skilfully enough to change their minds.

When my peers and I began studying at Oxford, we expected to be challenged about our approach to a problem or our interpretation of a poem. We didn't expect to be challenged on our innateness – whatever that might contain.

It's hardly surprising that, at a time when 20 homophobic hate crimes are reported every day, university students feel uncomfortable about tutors who disagree with homosexuality. What is surprising, however, is that Oxford’s vice-chancellor – a woman with a duty of care to the students at her university – is willing to admit that she has dismissed those concerns by saying, “I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable.”

In the same speech, Richardson defends her £350,000 salary. How can she justify such a large paycheck when she is not willing to listen to and act upon the concerns of her students? That would seem like a fundamental part of her job. 

Her comments also demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of how power relationships work. There is, on occasion, some value in exposing bigoted views by preserving freedom of speech, but a tutor-student scenario is vastly different from usual contexts in which this could occur. How is a student meant to feel confident enough to debate their own identity with the professor who will mark their final exams?

Richardson is a representative of a university known to be a reserve of the straight, white, male elite. Her comments are symptomatic of an institution which encourages marginalised groups to see no structural problems, but only problems with themselves. They reinforce the idea that students who are members of minority groups are only welcome in academic spaces if they conceal their identities, or offer them up for debate.

By contrast, a space, especially an academic one, in which people are banned from expressing hate speech does not hinder free speech – it expands it. But it does so for marginalised groups, rather than reaffirming the status quo.