Over recent years, we’ve learned to pay attention to the intellectual trends and taboos on university campuses — they have a way of spilling out into mainstream corporate and political life.
Which is why the vote among the 7,000 faculty at Cambridge on a new ‘free speech policy’ matters. The results will be announced tomorrow at 5pm and will be an indication of the willingness to resist the increasing threats to free speech and academic enquiry around politically sensitive topics.
Cambridge has been in the news all year in this regard —rescinding the invitation of a visiting fellowship to Canadian academic Jordan Peterson, removing academic Noah Carl after his controversial study into race and intelligence, and subjecting a college porter to a campaign to be removed after he voted a certain way on a trans issue as a Labour local councillor.
I spoke to Dr Arif Ahmed, a Philosophy tutor and fellow at Gonville and Caius college, who has raised concerns that the inclusion of a requirement to be ‘respectful’ of people’s opinions and identities, included in the proposed free speech policy, risks legitimising future censorship. He thinks it could have been used to justify excluding Jordan Peterson, on the grounds that he has not been sufficiently respectful of certain religions, or forbidding the inclusion of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in a course about free speech. He suggests it is replaced with the word ‘tolerate.’
He dates the trend against full free speech at universities to the marketisation reforms of the Blair era. “The fact that universities now view students as customers means that there is much more emphasis on making them feel comfortable and making them feel at home,” he said. “They’re not being subsidised to pay for a certain public good; they’ve got paying customers and they’ve got to give those customers what they want.”
More generally, he feels we are at a crucial moment in terms of freedom:
“Individual liberty is always fragile. It’s a rare thing in history of the world. And as well as being rare, it’s very fragile. It will always come under attack from different directions, sometimes from the Left, sometimes from the Right. At the moment, I think it’s coming under attack from both the Left and the Right.”
We’ll be back with news of the result once it’s known tomorrow. Thanks to Dr Ahmed for sharing his thoughts.