Academic Freedom Is Slipping Away – Here’s Why We Must Fight Back

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By Joanna Williams | 3:26 am, September 14, 2016

Starting university, leaving home and making new friends is a big step in anyone’s life. For students at Clark University in Massachusetts it just got harder.

No longer can they ask their classmates: “Do you guys want to grab a coffee?” In a talk on “how to avoid offence” new students have been warned that using the phrase “you guys” is a micro-aggression: it excludes women.

Asking black students if they play basketball or Asian students for help with maths assignments is also forbidden.

Never mind that the best way to avoid offence is not to be offended, or that the best way to challenge prejudice is to get to know people – at Clark it seems more sensible to talk only with people who are like you.

The mantra “say nothing” best sums up the advice given to students at Rutgers University who have been told to use only “kind” and “necessary” words. So, no more drunken ramblings, no more heated debates and no passionate disagreement – that’s three of the best reasons for going to university ruled out in a single stroke.

In the UK, guidance given to incoming students is a little less explicit – but it won’t take freshers long to bump up against the “safe space” policies in operation at more than a fifth of universities.

Forget words, in a safe space even body language is outlawed. Last year, at the University of Edinburgh, in the middle of a student council meeting on boycotting Israel, one student was castigated for the heinous crime of shaking her head. In the safe space, “gestures which denote disagreement” are outlawed.

The National Union of Students goes one better and disapproves of gestures which show positive appreciation. Clapping, it has decreed, can be “triggering”. It advises students to use “jazz hands” at NUS conferences so that everyone can “feel able to participate”.

The demand for emotional safety spills over into the classroom. Law students at Oxford University have asked for trigger warnings to be given before lectures on sexual offences.

Fortunately, there’s been some kickback to attempts to stifle free speech on campus.

The University of Chicago issued a letter informing new students: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

At Oxford University, Vice Chancellor Professor Louise Richardson argued that “universities must address the challenges of ensuring freedom of debate amongst their student communities” and Chancellor Chris Patten warned students they must be prepared to embrace freedom of thought or “think about being educated elsewhere”.

Academic freedom is vital for universities to be able to carry out their mission to educate and to pursue knowledge. Free speech enables students to confront new and challenging ideas, learn from those they disagree with and hone their own arguments.

The statements in support of academic freedom from Oxford and Chicago are to be welcomed. But promoting a culture that allows free thought and is tolerant of dissent requires more than this.

Unfortunately, as a recent survey of British students shows, there is a great deal of confusion about what free speech means nowadays. While a majority of students support the idea that universities should never limit free speech, only 45% agree that “education should not be comfortable, universities are places of debate and challenging ideas”.

More alarmingly,  30% of students disagree with the idea that “University publications should not be censored in any way, even if they may be considered offensive to certain groups of students”.

A similar Gallup poll conducted in the US also showed that although students support First Amendment rights “in the abstract”, many see no contradiction with also supporting restrictions to outlaw “offensive” or “biased” speech.

It’s not surprising that students are confused about free speech when a growing number of lecturers are ambivalent about academic freedom.

Some see academic freedom as an elitist concept that allows the already-privileged free reign to offend. They would rather see academic justice than academic freedom.

Some who work in universities see students as too vulnerable to cope with free speech; alarmist reports suggest that up to eight out of ten students have mental health issues.

In response, universities are likely to serve up petting zoos, puppy rooms and colouring books alongside trigger warnings, rather than free speech and rigorous debate. The ever-present focus on student satisfaction also deters lecturers from pushing students out of their comfort zone.

To promote academic freedom we need to challenge students who demand the university be turned into a safe space.

But we also need to challenge administrators who police micro-aggressions; diversity officers who preach that cultural appropriation is a sin; the army of counsellors and therapists who tell students that university is a threat to their mental health and also the academics who issue trigger warnings for course content and tell students that words that wound can be avoided rather than confronted.

Joanna Williams is the education editor of Spiked and the co-editor of Why Academic Freedom Matters, published this week by Civitas.