In the heartlands of white-flag academia
When I tried to find out why my pro-Brexit article was turned down I was rebuffed—showing the intellectual conformism of universities by Noel Malcolm
Readers of Standpoint will need little reminding of the pressures for intellectual conformism that now operate in our universities. David Butterfield’s article in the May edition, about the sudden cancellation of a visiting position that had been offered to Professor Jordan Peterson at Cambridge, gave a classic example of how it works. First, the university will invite a speaker or make an appointment, following its normal academic criteria; then student activists, and/or more senior agitators, will excavate some disreputable-seeming detail from that person’s past record, and launch their campaign; and then, very quickly, the university will capitulate.
tacted the Cambridge University press office and suggested that they post it in the special section of the university website which they devote to articles about Brexit (the overwhelming majority of them, as you might guess, being negative treatments of that topic). On a previous occasion when he had sent them an article by me, they had declined on the grounds that, as they put it, I did not have “any current links to Cambridge”; so this time he pointed out that I am an Honorary Fellow of three Cambridge colleges. And in any case, he said, the matter was of direct relevance to Cambridge, as the alarmist public letter I was criticising had been issued by representatives of Cambridge—i.e. the Russell Group, which represents Cambridge among other universities.
Each time this happens, the impression one gets is of institutional pusillanimity: although the university would like to uphold academic standards, and of course wants to defend freedom of speech, those good intentions can quickly be crumpled up and folded away for the sake of a quiet life.
That may be the pattern in many cases. But what about the cases where the university does not surrender to pressure, but rather exerts the pressure itself? Where it has all the freedom it could wish for to promote the unhindered expression of ideas, but instead chooses not to? A few days before that article by David Butterfield was published, I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge about one such case, which involved an article I had written about Brexit. The article itself, as I hastened to explain to him, was a very minor thing; but the point of principle which I wanted him to consider was, I thought—and still think—major.
The story began in January, when various bodies representing British universities, including the Russell Group, issued a public letter about the dangers of a “no deal” Brexit. In hugely exaggerated language, they announced that it would take “decades” for universities to recover from such an event. Rather dishonestly, they made no mention of the plan, already announced by the government, to rejoin the European research funding system as an “associated” country after Brexit. Most shockingly, they tried to stir up fears among European Union students in this country for their own purposes, saying that those students were “facing significant uncertainty about their futures”, even though their continued status here (including their right to pay only the fees of “home” students) had already been guaranteed.
The response he received was curious: a curt, unsigned message which just said that they had passed my article to their counterparts at Oxford, where I am a Fellow of a college. When he wrote back to protest at the inadequacy of this, he received an answer which was at least signed, by the “Head of News”, and which purported to reply to the points he had made. She wrote that only “current Cambridge researchers” could be published on their website; she declared that my article had to be excluded because it was an “opinion” piece, not a “fact based analysis”; and she concluded:
On a broader level, there does not appear to be an argument for Cambridge to balance a position it has taken, in that we do not appear to be a signatory to the “much-publicised letter sent to MPs by representatives of British universities, including our own” as you state. We are not included on the list of signatories. If you have additional information that can clarify this point, I would be very grateful if you could share it. When I read this, I was not sure whether the slightly lipcurling tone of that final sentence was deliberate or not. But I felt quite sure that the second and third reasons given here were bogus. So I wrote to her myself to say so, very politely. I pointed out that my article was indeed “fact based”, and that far from excluding opinion pieces from the Brexit section of their website, they posted articles there which they themselves labelled as “Opinion”. (I quoted one example, an extraordinarily shallow piece urging Remainers not to accept the result of the referendum, which concluded: “To suggest that the UK is unit
I wrote an article criticising this and sent it to Briefings for Brexit, which is a pro-Brexit website run by two distinguished Cambridge academics, the historian Robert Tombs and the economist Graham Gudgin. When they published it, Professor Tombs also con
‘A university’s news office should not use tactics of stonewalling and outright falsification in an attempt to get rid of someone whose opinions it apparently does not share’
ing around Brexit, then, is a danger to democracy itself. That danger comes from pressure on the losers to actually change their minds.”) As for her request for “additional information” to clarify the point that the open letter was signed by representatives of Cambridge, I replied:
30 November 2019