by James Billot
Thursday, 16
June 2022
Campus Wars
10:12

America’s campus wars come to Cambridge

The university is going down a dangerous path
by James Billot
We are giving students too much power. Credit: Getty

Should you respect opinions that are ‘ridiculous’? That is what is being asked of Cambridge dons as part of a new policy aimed at preventing inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. According to The Times, some dons have ‘balked’ at a proposal to be respectful of differing opinions, such as those of religious believers or earth scientists ‘who are trying to make mining more efficient’. Presumably, this respect policy would also extend to social justice narratives about whether every societal ill today is caused by racism or if 2 + 2 = 5. 

While such views are, admittedly, more pertinent to America, it is clear that this is where the language of the Cambridge letter is coming from. The document says it seeks to create “a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and courtesy”. The emphasis on safety and inclusion will be depressingly familiar to anyone well-versed in the American social justice argot, so why does Cambridge university plan to copy it?

The rationale behind a ‘safe and inclusive’ environment is that students should be made to feel emotionally, psychologically and physically secure at university. Professors are therefore expected to create a protective forcefield around their students, batting away any dangerous or harmful ideas that may come their way. 

This, in effect, grants a huge amount of power to students. Because trauma lies in the eye of the beholder, there is very little a university or professor can do to determine its validity. As such, the onus rests on the shoulders of the professor — any breach of the forcefield and they must suffer the consequences. 

If this all sounds a bit fanciful, take the story of Professor “Jane Doe”. At the Heterodox Academy conference in Denver, I was told about how Doe read aloud a passage from a Frederick Douglass book that included the n-word. For this, she was attacked on Twitter by one of her students, which lead to an investigation by the university. Even though “Doe” never responded publicly, she was found responsible for creating a hostile environment, given a professional improvement plan, and a letter of reprimand in her personnel file.

Doe’s case is tragically symptomatic of a wider problem in American higher education. According to as-yet unpublished research by Prof. Martha McCaughey, nearly half (48%) of all faculty members said that experience or fear of student complaints affected their teaching. As a result, many reported that they were either self-censoring or lowering their standards to stay on the right side of students. Interestingly, this research did not find any meaningful distinction in terms of ideology, age, gender or race among professors who were afraid. In fact, only one factor stood out: rigour. The more rigorous the professor was in their teaching, the more likely they were to face complaints. In other words, those teachers who enforced high standards were more at risk of losing their job.

Complaints are just one example of the way in which students have weaponised the education system against professors. Along with trigger warnings, censorship, and microaggression training, we are creating a safetyist climate in which the livelihoods of an already precarious profession is being jeopardised. And by accepting the provisions outlined in the Cambridge letter, the university risks creating a similar culture here. 

The lessons from America are instructive, if rather bleak — something that was best captured by one US professor, who said: “I inflate student grades, offer banal and pointless commentary on subpar work, and generally do not consider myself a professor any longer but a minor obstacle in the path of students’ sense of entitlement to both praise, exceptionality, and finally, a college degree.” 

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Lennon Ó Náraigh
Lennon Ó Náraigh
5 months ago

The gentlemen in the figure… two of whom are dressed in black… all of whom look slightly intimidating, and all of whom are calling for their opponents to be silenced, to me look suspiciously like… fascists.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
5 months ago

You are losing me on the looking slightly intimidating part.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
5 months ago

I don’t think that you understand what a Fasict is under the modern definition – it is anyone who dsiagrees with you.

chris henry
chris henry
5 months ago

I find this entire topic of discussion wildly depressing as it feels there’s no true solution to this pervasive culture infecting society and education. The last quote of the article regarding the professor not being a professor but merely an obstacle for these students to use. How can this be reversed when every level of governance seems infected by this? It doesn’t even seem as if university deans have any power, as the students can mobilize much larger numbers and shout them down, and they’re afraid of going against the grain now. But what happens when all these graduates move into the working world and they only received good grades due to fear from the professor? We won’t know whose competent or not, we’ll have people wildly unqualified for roles and to remove them will be nearly impossible. This truly scares me, maybe more than it should, but it feels pressing. These guys truly are the fascists

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
5 months ago

Being respectful of stupid opinions is certainly not a desirable aim for a University. What most Universities lack is sufficiently robust criticism of the absurd opinions not only of the students but also many of the lecturers and administrators. As usual another harmful proposal is put forward in the name of safety.

Last edited 5 months ago by Jeremy Bray
Jon Hawksley
Jon Hawksley
5 months ago

You go to university to be challenged and the reward comes from pattern completion as you organise your thoughts. You should not need to be praised. It is enough to make a contribution to a team that values that contribution. Requiring praise is to surrender your capacity to set your own objectives and assess your own performance. It might help to kick-start a child to make an effort but it holds back an adult. Ditto cosseting.

Stephen Davies
Stephen Davies
5 months ago
Reply to  Jon Hawksley

One problem with that. As it says any the end, the majority of students at university now are there for one reason – to get a degree. If they are from an elite background and at an elite institution they are also looking for affirmation and networking opportunities. The background to this a serious elite overproduction, way too many graduates for the number of positions available and increasingly desperate intra-elite competition.

Al M
Al M
5 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Davies

The problem is not an overproduction of elites; rather, it is the processing of many young people of average intelligence and capability who believe themselves to be elites and who rack up debts they will never pay back.

Peter Spurrier
Peter Spurrier
5 months ago

I thought Cambridge dons had already had a vote on whether they should have to respect other people’s opinions and had voted against. We should, of course, respect people’s right to have ridiculous opinions, but we shouldn’t have to respect the opinions.
If most of what I read about the woke domination of universities is true, then the government should be engaged in an energetic campaign against it. For one thing, there should be no more government subsidies for courses or institutions which are responsible for one-sided left wing indoctrination.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
5 months ago
Reply to  Peter Spurrier

Apparently the HR department is having crack at overturning the last result.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
5 months ago

Universities and professors are in a difficult positions here in the US. Economics trumps everything but biology and lest we forget, students are also customers, and while the customer isn’t always right, he or she is still the customer, and the customer pays for what the customer wants. if the students/customers want safe spaces and rubber stamp degrees, they’ll ultimately pay the institutions that provide that. This is obviously bad for everyone, including the students themselves, who were not parented well enough to know better, but good luck stopping this train wreck.

Mike Cook
Mike Cook
5 months ago

 The document says it seeks to create “a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and courtesy”.
I wonder if this is intended to apply to Jews as well? It certainly does not across the pond where the opposite is true.

Peter B
Peter B
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Cook

The document says it seeks to create “a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and courtesy”.
But only by excluding people and opinions they don’t like ! According to some arbitrary set of prejudices. Which will change over time.
As many have already noted, if you’re going to university because you want to live in a comfort zone, you’re wasting your time. If you don’t think that your teachers have different and more developed ideas and you aren’t open to learning, developing and changing your mind, what on earth are you doing there ? The same comments apply to the dons.
If people want these non-learning, comfort zone universities, they should fund them themselves.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Cook

“…a safe, welcoming and inclusive community which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and courtesy” – well, to achieve that, you need a set of agreed rules and common ground. Yet that’s exactly what so many activists want to undermine and eradicate, usually by overtly racist argument masquerading as progressive outrage.
In addition to this, the political left’s ongoing blinkered obsession with Palestinian liberation enables a facile oversimplification of a complex issue. The resulting straw man either results in overt anti-semitism, or at the least provides a rich fertiliser for its growth. Reality be damned: the Party line is the truth. Plus ça change…

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
5 months ago

“I was told about how Doe read aloud a passage from a Frederick Douglass book that included the n-word.”
The n-word is “ni55er”. It’s a disgusting racist epithet which nobody should use. But we most certainly should mention it rather than relying on greasy circumlocutions like “the n-word”.