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Is this a turning point in the campus culture wars?

A right wing student group aims to document lecturers' political bias by asking students to send in videos and photos. Jim Dickinson asks if this is a turning point in the campus culture wars
This article is more than 1 year old

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Why is it considered acceptable for Ofcom to regulate media bias – but when we simply want to document overt political bias of university lecturers, it’s suddenly intimidation?

I mean after all, individuals have every right to say and express whatever they want – but this changes in a professional setting. A doctor can’t tell you to vote Labour if you want to get better. So a [university] teacher cannot teach students that Boris Johnson is a fascist and present it as objective truth.

Now these aren’t my words, conference, but those of self-proclaimed “student movement” Turning Point UK, who have launched an exciting initiative called “Education Watch” . It aims to “document university lecturers’ political bias” by asking students that experience it to send in videos and photos which it will then showcase across its social media channels. It’s like that Chris Heaton-Harris letter from 2017, only with an expensive (and, for clarity, metaphorical) line of cocaine up its nose.

A dodgy dossier

It’s fair to say that their opening evidence on university academics – seen in this video and on this website – is not hugely compelling. Exhibit one is an email to students about voting in the general election – which whether biased or not, was actually sent by a school teacher to 75 students, according to TPUK itself back in December.

Exhibit two is a two second clip of a lecture that uses an image of Donald Trump as a way of explaining cancer cells’ behaviour, and exhibit three is a 24 second clip of another science lecture where someone draws an analogy between post-Brexit visa restrictions and nuclear localisation signals. Highly offended, TPUK calls this “remainer propaganda”, the fragile snowflakes.

Their fourth example is a photo of a slide describing some Marxist theory, which TPUK says is “another way of normalising extremist views”, as it fails to mention “the massive failures and high death tolls in Marxist states”. And their fifth example? A seven second clip of a lecturer telling his students that they “need to think like scientists, not Daily Mail readers”, which to be fair is a bit naughty – I doubt Andrew Sabisky is Guardian subscriber.

Maybe the choice of examples is deliberately poor – designed to cause me to press CAPS LOCK and start hammering out how ridiculous the whole thing is and how misguided the whole project is and how stupid the examples are and HOW WRONG THEY ARE ABOUT THE WHOLE PURPOSE OF HIGHER EDUCATION TEACHING but maybe my mum was right. Playground bullies just want a reaction, and the best thing you can do is ignore them.

All the big names

Who are these people anyway? Just over a year ago now, Turning Point UK was launched in the UK – apparently with the support of several UK MPs such as Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Anne-Marie Trevelyan‏ and Steve Baker. It’s a UK version of a US organisation that seeks to challenge “political correctness” and the “safe-space” culture that it says dominates university campuses. Founded in the US in 2012, it claims to be “the biggest and most far-reaching youth organisation in America”, and its website suggests that it now operates in 1,300 schools and colleges across the US. Amusingly, it’s launch didn’t exactly go to plan.

The US version has a multi-million dollar budget with a number of donors – for example, the International Business Times reports that from 2014 to 2016, the Ed Uihlein Foundation gave it $275k. Richard Uihlein, the president of the foundation is a Republican mega-donor and a “free-markets, smaller-government crusader”. Its other major donors include the Dick and (US Education Secretary) Betsy DeVos Family Foundation – who fund anti-Muslim hate groups.

Here in the UK the founding chairman of Turning Point UK was named last year as former Oxford student and Bullingdon Club member George Farmer, who was also a former social secretary of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA). He told Cherwell last year that the group’s main objective would be to “reverse the direction of travel in a lot of these universities, where left-wing academics are broadly filling young minds with cultural Marxism”, and true to the promise it has been busy doing that – focussing mainly on mocking Corbyn and “remainers” in the political chaos of 2019.

To kick start the fundraising, the UK version was privately launched in January 2019 by USA leaders Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens at the Royal Automobile Club, a London private members’ club. The launch event was attended by (amongst others) Andy Wigmore, who funded the Leave.EU campaign; Steven Edginton, the “chief digital strategist” for Leave Means Leave and the “digital campaign manager” for the TaxPayers’ Alliance; alt-right social media personality Paul Joseph Watson, editor-at-large of conspiracy website InfoWars; James Dellingpole; and famed “anti-feminist” Peter Lloyd.

In their suite of activities in the US, as well as intervening to get conservative candidates elected in student government (ie students’ union) elections, probably the most high profile (and politically successful) has been a project called “Professor Watchlist”. It “exposes and documents college professors” who “discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom”. That version does take tips from website visitors, but only publishes (named and shamed) profiles on incidents “that have already been reported by a credible source”. Nevertheless, several stories suggest that academics on the site have been on the receiving end of bullying and several have received death threats.

Its founder Charlie Kirk might have told CNN in 2017 that they “do not call for any of that sort of harassment” and that they “don’t condone it” or “try to facilitate any sort of cyberbullying or harassment”, but he doesn’t feel any particular sense of responsibility. “Just because you put up the words, or another article that’s been written about a professor in an aggregated format”, he said a couple of years ago, “does not mean we should be held responsible for what other people do”.

Maybe the UK version won’t take off, and will amount to little more than a Twitter stunt. And right now, Turning Point UK is saying that it’s not intending by default to name those it gets reports on – but that it will “if necessary”.

A turning point?

In some ways, TPUK is little more than a generously funded, digital native version of plenty of left-baiting, free speech advocating student groups that have come before it – like the Young Britons’ Foundation (a “Tory madrasa” used to teach young Conservatives the “dark arts” of politics), the Conservative Collegiate Forum (CCF), the “Freedom Association” or even, in their day, both the Federation of Conservative Students and Conservative Future. The interesting question is how the current government plays its reaction to TPUK and “Education Watch” if it is asked to.

Michelle Donelan’s involvement in “Conservative Future” was very much in the modernising mould, as was Gavin Williamson’s in “Conservative Students” some years earlier – both were keen to stress that their iteration of youth conservativism was more interested in winning elections than culture wars, and distanced themselves from the excesses of those groups’ respective pasts. But right now, fanning the flames of the 2020 version of that culture war is pretty popular with the press, parts of the public and a No.10 that won a referendum and an election on the basis of it.

Clearly, in normal times, if you believed there really was a problem with campus viewpoint diversity, this sort of twaddle wouldn’t help your argument, because it makes you look ridiculous and alienates a generation that isn’t nearly as stupid as the brainwashing argument suggests. Jo Johnson worked that out eventually, as did Sam Gyimah – and Chris Skidmore twigged it from the start. But these are not normal times. If this takes off, watching closely for Donelan or Williamson’s reaction will tell us a lot about what might come next.

2 responses to “Is this a turning point in the campus culture wars?

  1. This is a good article that clearly exposes the hypocrisy of the alt-right and their idiotic witch hunts. In response to Neil John, I fail to see how opposing fascism as antifa does could be seen as ‘fascistic’ – i suggest you educate yourself by reading Mark Bray’s ‘The Anti-Fascist Handbook’ to gain a more nuanced perspective. If the current trend of right wing persecution of left wing ideas persists Antifa might be our best response.

  2. I think that it is irresponsible to talk up the idea of a ‘culture war’. As the article shows this is largely the activity of a small fringe group. Universities are not undergoing a culture war. It is entirely a phoney war conducted in the trade press.

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