Free speech champions seen as fix for academic freedom ‘crisis’

Institutions should assign a senior university manager to uphold academic freedom in same way as equality is promoted at board level, says report

September 21, 2022
Free speech

Vice-chancellors should appoint an “academic freedom champion” within their senior leadership team to counter growing concerns that scholars and students are afraid to speak out on issues of sex and gender, says a report.

In a pamphlet published by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, UCL professors Judith Suissa and Alice Sullivan suggest that institutional leaders have not done enough to defend campus free speech in the face of “absolutist” demands from transgender rights campaigners, which have led to the cancellation of campus events and campaigns for academics to be fired.

To address the issue, universities should “promote academic freedom alongside equality” by creating a free speech “champion” to ensure that there is a “voice positively promoting academic freedom” within management discussions. Institutional champions would also check that “all policies that may intersect with academic freedom are subject to the scrutiny of the academic governing body”, the study adds.

The proposal – one of 17 recommendations – would help to address what the authors call a “crisis of academic freedom” on UK campuses, for which institutional leaders must take some blame. “The trend for university administrators to police the boundaries of academic freedom within the parameters of ‘risk assessments’ and ‘reputational damage’, rather than seeing academic freedom as a matter for the academic community, is central to the problem,” they state.

“Social media creates the conditions where small numbers of academic staff and students can loudly demand the censure of others, but it does not force universities, publishers or scholarly bodies to acquiesce to these demands.”

The report, How Can Universities Promote Academic Freedom? Insights from the front line of the gender wars, details incidents in which UK university staff have faced calls to be sacked, or to be no platformed, for taking particular positions or expressing views deemed transphobic.

These include the philosopher Kathleen Stock, who resigned from the University of Sussex in October 2021 after what the pamphlet describes as a bullying campaign against her following her “articulation of concerns about the conceptual assumptions behind the slogan ‘Trans women are women’”, and campaigns petitioning for the academics Sarah Honeychurch and Michele Moore to leave the editorships of the journals Hybrid Pedagogy and Disability and Society, respectively. It also details how events have been cancelled or subject to campaigns calling for their cancellation, such as an Open University conference on prison reform that was cancelled after pressure from activists and an event at the University of Edinburgh “to discuss women’s sex-based rights”.

Ahead of proposed new legislation designed to bolster free speech on campus, the authors take aim at the LGBT+ charity Stonewall, stating that “political lobby groups should not be invited to shape policy or provide training”.

“In particular, any organisations which seek to silence discussion must not be welcomed into positions of influence within the university administration,” the authors argue, adding that “activist networks” should not be embedded in university administration.

There is also a need for staff and student training on academic freedom, including on the legal framework that protects it and the legal limits to free speech, the report adds, stating that efforts should be made to “educate staff and students on…the value of productive disagreement”.

More support should also be provided for those “facing harassment or defamation from outsiders to the university, including staff at other institutions”, including legal support, while managers should also recognise that “vexatious complaints are themselves a form of harassment”.

In his introduction to the pamphlet, the series editor, Michael Hand, professor of the philosophy of education at the University of Birmingham, writes: “The evidence catalogued by Suissa and Sullivan of suppression of research, of blacklisting, harassment and smear campaigns, of no-platforming, disinvitations and shutting-down of events, is incontrovertible.”

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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