The event at the UCL Institute of Education gave professors Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan an opportunity to advance a by now fairly familiar set of arguments about the way that campus “cancel culture” suppresses debate on sex and gender. They argue that university leaders’ failure to tackle it represents complacency about academic freedom – a luxury “we cannot afford”.
One of the central arguments on offer is that in a marketised system, university leaders “cowtow” to activist and lobby groups, students are seen by primarily as customers rather than learners, and that as a result there is an unwillingness to tackle their behaviour. The argument seems to suggest that if higher education was centrally planned then professional reputation would cease to matter to middle aged white men. I have a feeling that that might be a misplaced assumption.
It’s also an argument that seems to ignore that higher education is much more diverse than it used to be, and that we now understand the way it itself creates or exacerbates inequality where HE used to merely observe those phenomena. Seeking refuge from considerations of “risk” makes sense if you are affronted by the idea that you could be causing harm. Google used to think it “did no evil” too.
Apparently, the erosion of academic governance has allowed universities to “lose sight of their purpose in pursuit of the bottom line”. In this framing, if only academics were calling the shots, we could return to the glory days when Stonewall was a student society rather than a generator of corporate advice – a happier time, when were all able to make amusing asides about Y-chromosomes without the fear of being called out for it on Twitter, and when vice chancellors used to be able to take to Times Higher to talk about ogling students as a “perk”. Yes, I know there’s a line between those two examples. But where is that line, exactly?
The problem is often the company that the reputation/marketisation argument keeps and its proximity to just hating the idea that students should have any agency at all. When an academic in the audience started ranting about students “all being idiots”, someone turned to me and muttered that he didn’t mean all of them. I didn’t really have the time or energy to point out that the EDI activists he likely had in mind aren’t idiots either, and that his belief that they are, and his evident belief that he isn’t, may both be major parts of the problem.
Lurking in the background all night was the internet, or rather the lack of it – the arguments seemed to presuppose that once you reduce provider competition, the internet’s ability to make people feel rotten via the collective impact of lots of acts of micro-accountability (that don’t follow civility or natural justice rules) will somehow disappear. It won’t.
And the failure to recognise that the fairness and freedom promised by baby boomers’ “due process” and “reasoned argument” feels to many like it reproduced oppression and inequality rather than challenged it was one of many generational elephants in the basement room. In this framing, EDI work is oppression, to be balanced and checked by “academic freedom champions” and such forth – but if you can’t see that what most EDI work is calling for is freedom from structures, culture and “fairness” that has consistently failed to deliver for multiple groups, we’ll never get anywhere.
On the panel, former Education Secretary Estelle Morris lamented that in her day, activism took the risks and those being targeted faced few consequences – but now activism faces no consequences and it’s those being targeted that take the hit. We might also see this as generational shock about being constantly, relentlessly judged. Outside of egregious (and rare) acts of organised, plotted harassment, what the young know is that the “free speech” the boomers promise is great also makes them anxious 24-7.
Because it’s the children and their parent-proxy VCs that are wrong, some of the recommendations in the pamphlet centre on educating students (and some staff) on the value of free speech – they all need to be braver, cry the philosophers. If students were on the panel, they might have called for those older than them to develop the bravery and courage (and bouncebackability) they have to deploy to get through a modern mis-step on Instagram. They would almost certainly have pointed out that they understand concepts of academic freedom and the “value of productive disagreement” already, thanks.
As ever the volume of material on incidents and anecdotes in the pamphlet obscures any real prevalence understanding – and while there’s plenty of attempts to get the reader to understand academic freedom and how it’s different to freedom of speech, there seems to be almost no attempt to understand either activists or the students that surround them.
It was down to David Ruebain, the former boss of the Equality Challenge Unit and now Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion at Sussex, to cause the audience at the event to try to at least understand the feelings of existential threat generated by what trans students and staff percieve as the denial of their existence by gender critical feminists.
I don’t know if what is seen as a call for university to be a space “safe” from discussion of sex is as unreasonable or irrational as a call for it to be a space “safe” from trans-aligned EDI activism. What I do know is that too many of the academic contributions on free speech seem to be about asking people to “understand me”, when it’s developing a better understanding of others that will surely be the key to calming what is framed here as the “gender wars”.