Numberwanging on about free speech and academic freedom

Here we go again. Today’s run at restoring the tort to the Free Speech Bill when it pongs into the Commons comes from a group of academics who are, it says here, “too scared” to challenge the decolonisation of the maths curriculum.

According to the Telegraph, a dozen academics (which is about 0.005% of them) have written to Claire Coutinho, the Children’s minister who for some unknown reason also holds the free speech portfolio, calling for protections on the basis that it is too “personally risky” for them to challenge EDI initiatives.

In this framing, remember, the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA)’s subject benchmarks are not advisory, but edicts which “infringe on the academic freedom of mathematicians to teach their subject according to their best professional judgement”. Worse still, demuring from their (modest, and only proposed) recommendations on EDI causes academics to have to face “physical intimidation from student activists”.

It matters not that the only shred of evidence of that kind of student activism around EDI surrounds the Kathleen “OfS still hasn’t reported on its investigation into Sussex” Stock case – a bit rich given the thrust here seems to be about orthodox views without evidence. We are in reality back in WMD “chilling effect” territory – where (again, ironically) it is the mere feelings and fears of some academics that seem to be driving a case for policy.

Remember at report stage in the Lords there were three options. Keeping the tort would have allowed the likes of the Free Speech Union (FSU) to threaten court action without going near an actual complaint in an actual university. The government’s compromise was to keep it as a backstop if internal and OfS complaints processes failed. But the Lords, egged on by Lord Willetts, deleted it altogether.

This group of academics is calling for option 1, on the basis that it would take ages to make a complaint rather than just threaten things with a solicitor’s letter:

We do not think this would give us the protection that we need. Universities have vast resources and power compared to individual academics. If academics are required to exhaust all internal processes…and then spend up to 12 months taking their complaint through the Office for Students before they can begin the lengthy process of going to the courts, we believe that the personal cost of raising any complaints would be far too high, rendering the system ineffective.”

I know I’ve said this before – but I’m astonished at the shamelessness with which people are deploying this argument given it’s even more true for even more powerless students who have complaints about academics. Shall we lawyer them up too, lads?

They’re egged on, of course, by Coutinho’s comments before Christmas to that OfS event when she said that the government “remains resolute” in its commitment that academics and speakers will have the right to go to court where their “fundamental right has been denied.” Maybe they’re really attempting to re-settle on Option 2.

Away from the tactics involved in parliamentary ping-pong, we do have to wonder why it is that some think that the Free Speech Bill would have anything to do the QAA’s subject benchmark statements at all.

It would appear that the thinking is that any proactive EDI initiatives at all in a university might cause views that critique the theory underpinning those initiatives to be unpopular, thus fueling the chilling effect, and so should be outlawed. As I suggested here, it would be ridiculous but not entirely surprising if a newly and politically appointed Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom took that view.

And if the possibility of contesting the theory behind EDI work is enough to have it ruled out for “chilling”, it remains impossible to see how John Blake can carry out his functions alongside his new fellow Director on the OfS board.

Whisper it – but perhaps the tort is really all about threats rather than any prospect of being able to actually demonstrate loss in a court. And maybe the Free Speech Bill has been about opposing EDI work in general all along.

You may not have experienced the delights of Politeia’s Freedom to Think Freedom to Speak pamphlet before Christmas, but in amongst claims like “the intellectual life of the world’s great universities is under threat” and exhortations to keep the Tort was this astonishing assertion:

It is a familiar scene to any academic today. You are one of a committee responsible for making an appointment. The sub-committee has drawn up a shortlist of three. To everyone’s horror, there is no woman on the list. Chair explains, shamefacedly: yes, there had been female candidates and they had considered them very carefully, but none was suitable for the job, whereas the three men shortlisted are all highly qualified and able. The committee is not impressed. ‘We were doing better now than before. This will be a real setback’, one of them explains, and everyone nods. The reference, obvious to everyone on the committee, is to the ratio of male to female members of the department. To have more women is to ‘do better’; any percentage less than 50 is evidence that something is going wrong. Another committee member joins in: ‘We must, of course, select on the basis of excellence’, she says, ‘but you’ – and she looks pointedly at the three men on the subcommittee – ‘are victims of hidden bias. You want to appoint people who are like you.’ Chair explains falteringly that it had been impossible to find any sufficiently senior female to join the sub-committee, but he is cut short by the administrative officer, who makes it clear that an all-male shortlist drawn up by an all-male sub-committee is unacceptable. Chair is quick to acknowledge his error and agree to a rethink. A woman is added to the list and, although she is placed third after the interviews, the same sorts of considerations that led to her being shortlisted end by making her the successful candidate.

The author (not a mathematician) goes on to argue that “90 per cent or 95 per cent of academics go along with the way of thinking evoked above”, where white males “are the eggs that must be broken to make the omelette of equality, diversity and inclusion”.

Maybe the group of mathematicians are brave warriors acting on behalf of others, but one of the signatories is Alan Sokal of University College London, who’s been railing about this sort of stuff for years – famously getting a hoax paper published in 1996 on “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”.

You can disappear down that rabbit hold in your own time, suffice to say that the extent to which OfS might require “expert academic judgement” before making decisions on Free Speech cases (and even then, whose) is one of the many underexplored issues in this debate.

In that Politeia paper, the author argues that that “90 per cent to 95 per cent” of academics no longer believe in “truth”. Real academics “may sometimes be biased by their own support of a particular method or view” but they “can look beyond their own preferences” and deploy “the vigour, imagination, tenacity and cogency with which the truth is sought”, whereas these EDI types have “no general standards for judging intellectual work.”

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Academics of this ilk would be wise to take a step back and consider the extent to which their arguments invite students to make complaints surrounding matters of academic judgement – the ban on which has long been taken for granted by some in the profession.

4 responses to “Numberwanging on about free speech and academic freedom

  1. How many academic appointment committees has Jim Dickinson been on? I’ve been on a few and the Politeia pamphlet in the quote which Jim calls an “astonishing assertion” is a generally correct description of how academic appointment committees in universities (including in maths) have worked for at least a decade (though my experience differs in detail: my experience is that if there is no sufficiently senior female available to be on a committee, then a (possibly very) junior female is added and it tends to be the Dean rather than a low-level “administrative officer” who is the enforcer of gender discrimination).

  2. I don’t agree with the letter writers’ view (at least as represented in the Telegraph article – I would hesitate to draw a definite conclusion before seeing the full text of the letter, which as far as I can see hasn’t been published?). But “astonished at the shamelessness with which people are [arguing for faster recourse to the law] given […] powerless students” seems a rather unfair straw-man-type attack. What makes you think the signatories to the letter oppose greater legal protections and recourse for students? There is no contradiction in believing that both students and rank-and-file academics need more effective mechanisms to enforce their various legal rights against universities and university management.

  3. The article conflates institutional policy with academic freedom – i.e. the freedom of your employer / educational institution to tell you how you should think about equality, with your freedom to take your own view.
    Very many people – staff and students – who are in favour of equality (as they and many others conceive of it) oppose the specific formulations current in EDI. The latter are in tension with the former on issues like sex / gender, ‘white privilege’ and decolonisation. Some see EDI as encroaching on their pedagogy and teaching. It’s hard to deny this when some universities are outlawing single sex spaces, advocating for ‘gender neutral’ language, training people in the notion of ‘white privilege’ and issuing checklists to ‘decolonise’ courses. People from a variety of backgrounds, identities and political perspectives – staff and students – oppose or want to question these views. They should be able to do so without standing in opposition to their employers (staff) / educating institution (in the case of students).

  4. EDI has become a very blunt weapon, though thankfully in the UK we still largely think of the E as equality (of opportunity), rather than the destructive equity (of outcome) that has become the norm elsewhere in the Anglophone Academic world. Though for how much longer as the US ‘model’ of EDI and all the attached issues are now infiltrating UK Academia? For some this will be the hill to DIE on, fighting not just for our ‘Academic Freedom’, but for meritocracy as a whole, rather than consigning our best and brightest to the mental gulag EDI in it’s worst form constructs.

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