The culture wars and a tale of two letters

Image: IKON

The last week has been dominated by universities’ role in the culture wars. It’s been messy and frustrating, but also revealing about the state of politics today and how the sector is viewed.

A letter of note

It began last Tuesday morning when The Guardian revealed, via Professor David Green of the University of Worcester, a polite letter – on House of Commons letterhead – from pro-Brexit Conservative MP and Government Whip Chris Heaton-Harris to all university vice chancellors. It asked for “names of professors… who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit”, and “a copy of the syllabus”. A chill was sent down the sector’s collective spine as the implications of the request started to sink in.

Heaton-Harris was accused of McCarthyism by one critic, and of Leninism by Lord Chris Patten the chancellor of the University of Oxford (and former Conservative Party chairman and cabinet member). Heaton-Harris and Jo Johnson quickly came out in support of “free speech” and “academic freedom” respectively, with the latter suggesting the letter should “not have been sent” but that it was part of wider research and “may in time lead to a book” (suggested titles on a postcard please).

Number 10 asserted the letter was written “in his capacity as an MP, not as a representative of the government” and that the Prime Minister has “respect for the freedom and independence of universities.”

The following day, the Daily Mail front page headline was “OUR REMAINER UNIVERSITIES”, with photos of university heads alongside the apparently shocking revelations about how each supported Britain staying in the EU. The layout echoed the infamous “ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE” attack on judges last year, and included a plea for people to write in with examples of “anti-Brexit bias” in universities.

Broadening the curriculum or narrowing minds?

Meanwhile, The Telegraph (mis)reported another polite letter, this time from black University of Cambridge alumna and students’ union women’s officer, Lola Olufemi, to the university’s English faculty. The letter, which was signed by over 100 of her peers, recommended ways that it could “decolonise its reading lists and incorporate postcolonial thought alongside its existing curriculum”. The front page of the paper led with her picture and a hysterical headline that suggested her actions were forcing the university to “drop white authors”.

The next day, the paper issued a correction for publishing the claim that the letter forces Cambridge to drop white authors, rather than simply make recommendations about the curriculum.

But the damage was done: Olufemi told BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour she had been “flooded with racist and sexist abuse” and that the paper’s actions were “very telling… as if to incite this.”

The Sunday Times followed up yesterday by lifting the lid on a radical conspiracy of librarians: to give well-used books more prominence on shelves than those referred to only in special circumstances. And given the atmosphere of the last week, this was naturally dressed up as “pressure to label or even ban works by feminists, Holocaust deniers, and climate-change sceptics”.

The focus on what students read is a peculiar extension of the “snowflake” narrative. By living in “safe spaces”, so the argument goes, students will never have to confront literature that they disagree with. Except of course, if they wish to widen reading to materials that their tutors disagree with – or dare to take a perspective on European politics that runs counter to much of the media narrative on Brexit.

Learning lessons

All of this further illustrates the power of the Fourth Estate, especially the two most-read and pro-Brexit national papers, The Sun and the Daily Mail. According to post-election polling, 74% of the latters’ 1.5m readers voted Conservative in the June election. In a “post-truth era”, the relentlessly negative headlines can only be bad news for the sector and how it’s perceived. Continued stories about vice chancellor pay and the tuition fee system haven’t helped matters in recent months.

As the latest polling shows, sixteen months after the referendum, stark Brexit fault lines still run deep through both main parties and the country as a whole. And with such a slim government majority, Brexit overwhelming all other policy, and an increasingly confident opposition, the atmosphere in Westminster remains febrile.

In this context, politicians are likely to behave in unpredictable ways in the jostle for influence and position. Exhibit A: the bizarre and unsettling Heaton-Harris letter. Exhibit B: Jo Johnson stoking the flames earlier this month by dressing up the regulatory framework consultation for the press to make it appear as if he was taking new action to protect free speech on campus.

None of this helps the growing misconception that education – and those who take part in it – are responsible for (rather than solutions to) all manner of ills from elitism and expertise to remain sentiment, campus culture, and diversity in the curriculum.

Simplistic media battles, stoked by politicians, risk leading us further towards the culture wars particularly evident in America, where universities are now viewed negatively by a worrying and increasing amount of public figures, not least in the White House.

A line in the sand?

The Heaton-Harris letter was notable for the strength of the pushback from the sector, particularly from vice chancellors to whom the letters had been addressed. Many VCs have told us privately that they have felt frustrated over recent months; there’s a widespread feeling that keeping their pay so prominently in the headlines has had a chilling effect, making it much harder for institutional leaders to respond to critics of the sector. But last week was an unambiguous opportunity to hit back hard – from what we’ve seen of the response, Heaton-Harris’s inbox will be adorned by now with c.160 different ways of saying Foxtrot Oscar.

Similarly, the Daily Mail’s call to send in examples of pro-Brexit bias at universities backfired as hundreds of increasingly creative and often hilarious responses from the higher education community were submitted and shared on social media.

It’s obvious that the sector does need to be able to listen and respond to legitimate criticism, but it also needs to be savvy in handling the skirmishes that lie ahead as the culture wars play out. Last week’s debates feel like the tip of a much bigger iceberg.

On some levels, it may be a communications problem, but a bigger challenge will be to remain relevant locally, ensuring that popular newspapers and their hysterical and damaging headlines do not lead popular public opinion about universities.

With so many challenges ahead for the nation – and world – well-run universities with world-leading academic departments (yes, Daily Mail, including in European studies) will surely be part of the answer. At Wonkhe, we think that we’ve never needed universities more.

1 thoughts on “The culture wars and a tale of two letters”

  1. James Kirkland says:

    It has been controversial in the UK charity sector, but does HE need something akin to the US https://www.charitydefensecouncil.org/ ? Is HEERA able to offer something to the sector as a whole?

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