Sidestepping challenging texts does disservice to students

Students should be encouraged to tackle books, ideas or ways of thinking they may find distressing or offensive – but offering emotional support is important too, says Sussex’s new vice-chancellor, Sasha Roseneil

September 2, 2022
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The early years of my academic career as a sociologist were framed by vigorous public discussions of “political correctness”. Thirty years later, as I embark on my new job as vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, the terminology has changed and it is “wokeness” that is at stake in today’s “culture wars”, and universities are being investigated for allegedly banning books and censorship on campus.

In this context, it behoves me to restate what many of my fellow academics and university leaders have been seeking to have heard amid the sound and fury of the contemporary public sphere: that universities rest upon, and must fundamentally seek to uphold, the principles of academic freedom and freedom of speech and expression within the law.

British universities are, and continue to be, among the most liberal, open and democratic-minded of institutions. All universities, and Sussex in particular, are places where established ideas and knowledge are challenged and reworked.

And because the best ideas, the strongest concepts, and the most impactful research findings are those that have been subject to rigorous challenge, universities need to be inquisitive environments. Their curricula and cultures have to support and facilitate the contestation of conventional wisdom, and the pursuit of novel, sometimes unpopular, even disturbing, lines of enquiry.

As institutions dedicated to education, universities are also places of encounter with new, and often difficult, ideas, through which identity, character, and world view change and develop. As such, they provide a wide range of disciplined training in methods of investigation, interrogation and debate that equip graduates with essential life and citizenship skills, as well as offering more informal spaces for students to explore politics, culture and social relationships, in which emergent critiques of the status quo and visions of the future can be forged.

In order to be places in which new knowledge and selves are created, universities have to value and cultivate diversity: they have to seek, proactively and strenuously, to create an inclusive culture, in which differences in background, belief, experience and identity are embraced, and are understood as essential to the work of advancing discovery and learning in a diverse and complex world. The questions and problems of members of different groups in society are not the same, as power structures and inequalities shape interests and concerns – and is the duty of universities to ensure that the most marginalised and disadvantaged members of society, and their interests and concerns, are properly included in the research and education they provide.

This demands institutional attention to the creation of empathetic and supportive working and learning environments, in which everyone is able to flourish, in their diversity. It means caring about the emotional well-being of our students and ensuring that we do our best to prepare and support them as they encounter challenging topics and texts.

Sussex has, throughout its 60 years, been animated by an exceptional and distinctive spirit of intellectual freedom and challenge and, simultaneously, by a profound commitment to advancing equality and social justice. Both of these have rested on the recognition of the value of diversity.

In 1962, Sussex welcomed its first group of South African scholars, including the future president, Thabo Mbeki. Many others followed to study and work at Sussex, escaping persecution under apartheid, including lawyer Albie Sachs, who was allowed to leave imprisonment in South Africa on condition he never returned. At Sussex, Sachs studied for a PhD, “Justice in South Africa”, which was published in the UK and the US but banned in South Africa, making it a criminal offence to possess a copy. Inspired by the struggles of their South African peers, the Sussex student body became a long-term collective actor in the global movement against apartheid, mobilising the freedom of speech and expression available in the UK to campaign for similar freedoms for black South Africans.

Several decades later, exercising the penchant for cultural challenge for which Sussex had become known, in 2001, the University of Sussex library mounted an exhibition, “Subversion and Censorship”, in which books and images that had been deemed too shocking or subversive for public consumption were on open display.

As Deborah Shorley, our university librarian at the time said: “We hope the exhibition shocks visitors into thinking about the damage censorship has caused over the past centuries. Freedom of information is a fundamental human right that all libraries must strive to protect.” The works exhibited spanned six centuries of censorship, and included homoerotic photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, a 1967 edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and a signed copy of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (signed the day before the fatwa was imposed).

Writing this article shortly after the life-threatening attack on Salman Rushdie at a literary event in the US, the importance of that exhibition is powerfully reaffirmed. Universities, their libraries, curricula and culture must continue to uphold and promote the foundational importance of freedom of speech and expression within the law in academic life.

Some groups might, at times, find particular texts, ideas, or ways of thinking distressing or offensive, but sensitively facilitating their discussion and exploration has to be central to the work of the university, as is supporting the pedagogic decisions of academics about the texts they choose to teach and how they choose to teach them.

Sasha Roseneil is vice-chancellor and president of the University of Sussex.

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Reader's comments (3)

Well said, Sasha. Now please reinstate Kathleen Stock.
A really good piece, but as Steven says Kathleen Stock should be reinstated.
If texts aren't challenging then they don't belong in HE. Being challenging is not being offensive. Being offended by what someone has written is a sign of weakness. Disagree! Write an opposing argument! Discuss the flaws of the text in a seminar! Don't curl up and cry 'I am offended.' No one respects you for that.

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