Commentaries
Academia UK: A Dictatorship of the Righteous

By Joanna Williams

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January 27, 2016

In Great Britain, as in the United States, a growing moral consensus and a lack of political diversity among faculty and administrators is moving higher education away from the pursuit and transmission of knowledge in favour of the promotion of politically correct values.

Bad as that problem is in the U.S., it is at least as bad on this side of the Atlantic; perhaps worse. While in America there is strong pushback against those who want to change universities from places of open inquiry into places that tell students what they should think, there is less of that in Britain.

A particularly revealing incident occurred in October 2013 at the London School of Economics, where a debate was held over the question “Is Rape Different?”

One of the speakers was Professor Helen Reece, who has argued that the subject of rape is surrounded by myths, including that public attitudes toward rape are not as “regressive” as many believe.

Just for having allowed Reece and another contrarian to speak, a group of feminist lawyers at the University of Kent wrote that they “deplored” the university’s decision to allow them to have a platform for their “dangerous and unsupported views.” And that led to a demand from another group of academics that debate over such a “sensitive” question should be limited only to fellow academics who hold “correct” views.

We’ve seen a similarly hostile reaction to free speech over climate issues. In the U.K., many academics say that the science about man-made global warming is settled and therefore public debate on climate issues is “unhelpful.” Professor Brian Cox has said, for example, that scientific knowledge can only be challenged by “experts” so people he doesn’t regard as experts (in particular, Bjorn Lomborg who takes a non-alarmist approach on climate issues) should not be allowed to speak.

We also see the extent to which particular values and political attitudes have come to dominate British higher education in the courses offered to students.

Many universities now award undergraduate degrees in Sustainable Development. At the University of St Andrews, such a course “received the prestigious Green Gown Award for excellence in promoting sustainability.” Students can choose between a range of modules including: Business and Corporate Social Responsibility, Sustainable Technologies, Social Justice and Knowledge, and Education for Sustainability.

At the University of Central Lancashire, students can earn a Master’s degree in Advancing Equality, Rights and Inclusion. The aim is for students to “understand social inequalities and how to enhance the value of diversity and inclusion.”

Even long established academic courses have begun to blur the lines between knowledge and values. At Keele University, prospective sociology students are informed: 

We may imagine that the career we choose, and the amount of money we earn, is about our individual ability, but sociologists would argue that this it is conditioned by shifts in the economy and labour market which take place beyond one person's control. This is, of course, hard to see in everyday life because in our society we imagine that our fate is determined by our own individual behaviour. The objective of sociology is to show us that nobody is an island and that our fates are inter-related.

Such course information suggests that intellectual outcomes have been determined in advance and are bound up in the broader political goals faculty cohere around. It will be difficult for students to question the political concepts of sustainability, inclusion, or feminism and successfully complete their studies.

What is detrimental to critical thought is not so much the particular political agenda that underpins the higher education, but that the transmission of knowledge has been replaced by the promotion of values. Far from being considered problematic, this shift towards inculcating values is welcomed by many. 

In Britain, it is common for new lecturers to be expected to gain “professional recognition” from the Higher Education Academy (HEA), a body that claims to champion “excellent learning and teaching in higher education.” Part of the process of gaining recognition involves lecturers demonstrating that they have met the values specified in the HEA’s professional standards framework. 

Lecturers are expected to: respect individual learners and diverse learning communities; promote participation in higher education and equality of opportunity for learners; use the outcomes from research and continuing professional development; and acknowledge the wider context in which higher education operates. 

There is much to challenge in that arbitrary list of values, most especially what is not listed: a commitment to the pursuit of knowledge. The bigger problem, however, is with prescribing values for lecturers to hold at all.

The HEA’s expectation that lecturers demonstrate collective values, and that UK universities have gone along with this, suggests that criticality is no longer considered a fundamental part of the academic enterprise. Yet there is little questioning of the promotion of values in higher education because it is often assumed no right-thinking person could disagree with what is being said.

Earlier this month I gave a talk at a British university as part of a series addressing the issue “What Should Universities Be?” 

Upon arriving, I was told about the previous lecture, which had been given by David Willetts. (Prior to the last UK general election, Willetts was a Conservative Member of Parliament and Minister for Universities and Science.) “Obviously we all disagreed with nearly everything he said. And we told him so!” my host informed me. 

What struck me about this remark was not so much the disagreement with Willetts, but the use of the word “we.” Who was this “we”? How could my host be so sure that everyone in the audience was of the same opinion?

The use of the word “we” by academics to refer to the collective views of their colleagues crops up in discussion with surprising regularity. “We” suggests not just that the speaker feels sufficiently confident to talk on behalf of others, but also that there is a set of views that all “right thinking” people obviously share.

When particular views are allowed to dominate, the risk is that people with counterarguments either self-censor and keep quiet or are told, “You can’t say that.” 

Often, institutional processes for recruitment or promotion, and the peer review mechanisms that gate-keep the publication of research and the allocation of funding, serve to reproduce rather than challenge a dominant consensus. That creates a culture of intellectual conformity and an incremental closing down of debate on campus. 

Some academics welcome this as a victory for civility and inclusion; others are unaware of the erosion of academic freedom until they come up against restrictions for themselves.

The politicised promotion of values rather than subject knowledge means that students soon learn that some ideas are simply not open for discussion. Most recently, attention has focused upon the role of students in calling for university to be a “safe space,” free from intellectual or emotional conflict. 

The recent research carried out by the British publication Spiked shows that 90 per cent of UK universities restrict free speech, and in most instances those restrictions come from students. Students have banned songs, newspapers, art works, and speakers from campuses throughout Britain. Students should be taken to task for curtailing free speech in this way, but they have learned intolerance of dissent and to respond through censorship from their professors. That cannot be ignored.

If universities are to survive as places for the transmission and advancement of knowledge, they need to promote intellectual, political, and ideological diversity. Academics need to move away from the all-inclusive “we” and instead actively seek out opposing views to put before students. They need to return to the original idea of a university and encourage the free exchange of ideas.

 


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