The university is going down a dangerous path
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 According to as-yet unpublished research by Prof.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.”