University of Fear

The Paradox of Modern Higher Education

5th June 2020
M.L.R. Smith

Universities still feel obliged to acknowledge the importance of academic freedom in policy documents and publicity. But when confronted with ideas that challenge the political and intellectual consensus on campus, the emptiness of this rhetoric is revealed. Although students may lead calls for protection from offence, they often echo the concerns of their lecturers and receive widespread institutional support. The result is the abandonment of academic freedom, and with it the very foundations of higher education, in favour of emotional safety.

Here, M.L.R. Smith, professor at King’s College London, recounts his personal experiences of coming up against the institutional limits of academic freedom and the enforcement of an intellectual homogeneity. The paradox of the modern university, he explains, is that it controverts the enlightened values it supposedly exists to encourage.

Google up ‘free-speech crisis on campus’ and its ‘Machine Learning Fairness’ algorithm will serve up a long list of articles from outlets like The Guardian, The Independent, and Vox, denying that there is any free-speech crisis. Moreover, if you consider both the written law and the formal statements of the universities on the protection of freedom of expression, one might be forgiven for thinking, where is the problem? Indeed, the declaratory policies around free speech on campus sound very good. But, there is a problem, which is that the reality in practice is often very different from the stated good intentions.

In the United States the First Amendment offers formal constitutional protection for freedom of expression. In the United Kingdom, the 1986 Education Act articulates an explicit obligation on universities. ‘Lawful free speech’, the Act proclaims, ‘should never be prevented on campus’.

Fine sounding statements from the university authorities themselves reinforce these legal and constitutional frameworks. The University of Cambridge states that it is ‘fully committed to the principle, and to the promotion of freedom of expression’. Oxford University declares that ‘Free speech is the lifeblood of a university. It enables the pursuit of knowledge. It helps us approach the truth’.

My own institution, King’s College London, declares that it has a ‘strong commitment to the values of freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience and religion and freedom of assembly and we want to offer the widest possible opportunity for the free expression of knowledge and ideas…’ It also claims to be inspired by the Chicago Principles intended to demonstrate a robust commitment to these noble ideals.

The gap between rhetoric and reality

Digging beneath the surface of these proclamations, however, reveals a gap between the rhetorical commitment to the principles of free speech and the operational practice, which far from opening up the space for inquiry often seeks to restrict viewpoint plurality or sometimes even to close down avenues of expression altogether.

Between 2018 and 2019 I ran a speaker series aimed at re-vitalising the discourse around freedom of thought and viewpoint plurality in order to explore the dimensions of the so-called culture war. Entitled ‘Endangered Speeches: Debating the Culture Wars’ it was an explicitly academic endeavour. It was initiated, mainly, because many students I spoke to were deeply interested in the subject and wished to discuss these matters overtly. Secondly, I have had an abiding academic interest in the social origins of war, which has formed a principal research interest of mine for some three decades. War as phenomenon does not emerge out of nothing. It grows out of multiple social origins. War begins in the mind long before it manifests itself as any kind of physical struggle.

To be clear, this speaker series was no freelancing operation. It was carefully planned months in advance by the professional events team within my department of which I was Head at the time. All of the organisational formalities, including risk assessments, were complied with. The events were officially advertised for many weeks beforehand on the university’s website.

The speaker series ran for two sessions. The events passed off well, with no incidents. The discussions were civil, the debates were calm – often humorous – and good-natured on all sides. Those in attendance emerged, one deduced, enlightened and stimulated. What was intriguing, however, was not the events themselves but the university’s curious, illogical, reaction.

Two days before the first event a student led petition was raised to get the invited speaker cancelled. The invited guest was a respected academic educationalist who had written an excellent book on conformity in academia. The petition alleged, erroneously, that the speaker had made offensive anti-transgender remarks in their previous writings and should therefore be disinvited. The petition gathered a meagre 144 signatures (including signees from outside the institution), representing, at most, perhaps no more than 0.2 per cent of the university’s staff and student body. Regardless of how risibly small it was, the petition startled the university authorities. Apparently, emergency meetings at the highest levels were convened (without my knowledge as the event organiser). Extra security was laid on.

In the end, security was not required. Nothing happened. Everyone enjoyed a perfectly respectful discussion, which was the precise intent of the series. On the surface, then, the university held the line against the insidious forces of ‘cancel culture’: so far so very good.

Beneath the veneer of academic integrity, a very different story was taking shape. The following day, I was on the receiving end of an incoherent outburst from a senior faculty administrator. It was unclear what precisely he was trying to convey apart from some vague accusation that I brought my department into disrepute. Quite why was left unexplained.

The following week I was summoned to a formal meeting with this same faculty administrator and another manager who engaged in another unintelligible harangue. I was accused of being simultaneously both naïve and disingenuous (if someone can tell me how you can be both at same time, I shall be interested to learn). To this day I still haven’t a clue as to what precisely was bothering them, other than a feeling that they seemed incensed that anyone should show any independent initiative.

Following these perplexing meetings, there came more measured and polite invitations from the university’s senior administrative personnel to discuss the legal and policy frameworks around speaking events. These invitations were issued and then postponed. Emails seeking to re-arrange such meetings went unanswered. No meetings, in the end, were held. Thus, I remained none the wiser as to what the university’s overarching position towards speaking events and freedom of speech really constituted.

How universities end up privileging the powerful

Why do I recite these somewhat surreal events? Because they caused me to set about analysing why a precept that, to me at least, seems obvious – the idea of the university as a project to advance knowledge and understanding through freedom of expression and viewpoint plurality – was held so equivocally by the very people one might expect would be its most avid defenders.

My deliberations led me to conclude that the lofty rhetoric about promoting freedom of thought disguised a paradox at the heart of the free speech debate on campus, namely that ultimately universities end up promoting the very opposite ethos of that which they supposedly exist to uphold. As will be elucidated, the paradox is revealed only when one uncovers the layers of ambiguity that obscure the gap between the rhetoric and practice of free expression. These layers exist at a number of levels:

Ambiguities in the law

While the United States enjoys constitutional protection for free speech in the form of the First Amendment, various laws in countries like the UK act to delineate a number of legal boundaries. Laws against incitement to violence, racial hatred and threatening and abusive behaviour, restrict certain forms of written and spoken thought. Legal rulings and precedents around free speech, which are governed by common law rights, add to the ambivalence. The British legal tradition of free speech rotates around the views of eighteenth century jurist Sir William Blackstone, and expressed in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, which emphasise lack of prior restraint. That is, one does not have to receive permission to speak your mind (from the government, the lord of the manor, your employer, etc.). It does not mean, however, that the individual enjoys protection from the consequences of one’s speech from existing legal codes against, say, sedition, defamation and blasphemy. At the outset, then, in defending free speech on campus the absolute right to freedom of expression is circumscribed and forms the wedge via which anti-free speech advocates exploit to hinder discussion of views with which they disagree. In Britain, the Equality Act (2010), for example, allows student groups and university administrators to argue that they have a legal duty to bar speakers who threaten the ‘safety’ of vulnerable groups.

Ambiguities in statements of universities

Formal legal inhibitions enable university authorities to couch their own regal statements within imprecise terminology. Examining the declarations of universities reveals that worthy sounding rhetoric on free-speech is hedged by all manner of qualifications: a word or an expression snuck in here and there that ultimately gives licence to restrict the avenues for open debate.

My own institution, for example, states that it ‘cares deeply about how we manage Freedom of Expression’. Those two words ‘we’ and ‘manage’ make all the difference. Who is ‘we’? And, what does ‘manage’ mean? The answers to those questions will determine whether there is a permissive or a controlled speech environment, especially when university declarations on free-speech segue into pronouncements that individuals should also enjoy a ‘right to freedom from hate’ (KCL), or that the aim of the university ‘is to provide a tolerant and equitable context in which knowledge is acquired’ (Sussex). Laudable sentiments may be, but such caveating introduces wide latitude for interpretation that those who are uninterested in promoting viewpoint plurality can use to ‘manage’ away any meaningful understanding of free speech.

Risk aversion

The financialisation of the higher education sector emphasises the search for greater ‘surpluses’ (i.e. profits), mainly from the exploitation of fee-paying students. The result is that universities come to privilege ‘brand’ management over loyalty to an academic ethos that extols the virtues of open debate and free-expression. The spread of corporatism throughout higher education, obsessed as it is with income and metrics, has produced a managerial elite lacking in sympathy with the idea of the university as a liberal project. Freedom to debate is thus evaluated not as a primary role of the university, something to cherish and be protected, but as a potential source of controversy. Controversy is deemed bad for business – a reputational risk – and thus to be avoided. Risk aversion therefore looms large, making universities scared of anything that might result in negative publicity.

Risk displacement

‘Managing’ risk presents many opportunities to restrict the freedom of expression. Avoiding the problems that university managers associate with open-handed debate enables controversy to be shifted towards ‘health and safety’ concerns, especially those centred on ‘security’. Rather than deal with the difficulties related to the intellectual content, university managers can displace the risk into non-substantive matters, which provide easy rationales to frustrate free speech. At a mundane level this may involve form filling and ‘risk assessments’. More egregiously, some institutions can impose insurance or security costs on the event organisers, or ask for speakers’ remarks to be vetted.

While it may seem sensible to have due diligence processes in advance of speaking events such procedures are not only daunting, especially for student societies, but they give off an air of menace, as if seeking to hold normal discussion is somehow dangerous. Accentuating ‘risk’, moreover, incentivises anti-free speech ideologues to stoke up prior publicity against any speaker of which they disapprove as ‘high risk’. The cumulative effect is to discourage and demotivate those who might wish to engage in the freedom to debate ideas.

Lack of enforcement of disciplinary codes

Many of the barriers to speaking events are instigated by students’ unions, which exploit risk factors to get speakers cancelled. Too often university authorities adopt a passive, stand off, attitude towards what are clearly politically prejudiced attempts to prohibit viewpoints from being heard. Vacillating before vocal and ideologically motivated efforts to revoke speaker invitations stretches into temporising before those who physically disrupt and break-up speaking events, or use threatening behaviours to intimidate event organisers. Rarely, if ever are perpetrators called to account even if they violate university codes on bullying and harassment. Frequently university authorities will cite the intimidation tactics of political activists as constituting their right to protest while allowing those individuals or groups that wish only to engage in debate to swing in the wind. The result is an un-level playing field tilted in favour of those who seek to constrict the discussion of different viewpoints.

Informal sanctioning

Many of the factors mentioned so far culminate in one particularly salutary truth, which is that a sizeable proportion of academics agree with restrictions on free speech. They have little problem curtailing views that they deem to be unacceptable and ‘offensive’. This would comport to my understanding in organising the ‘Endangered Speeches’ series where on four occasions in the space of a year I found myself explaining to very senior academic staff what the point of a university was: a forum for, you know, encouraging, free and independent thinking, promoting debate on different points of view, and so on. Yet, this notion of a university seemed unknown to them. The level of obtuseness encountered in trying to relay what to me seemed this most basic of concepts was such that I wondered whether I was intentionally being gaslighted or whether they really were naïve hatchlings: it was like explaining that zoos were for exhibiting animals, or that airports were places where planes land and take-off.

The degree of ideological alignment with the anti-free speech agenda underlines how many contemporary academics perceive themselves not as facilitators of thought but as curators of ‘acceptable’ opinion. The origins of this disposition inside the universities is complex and beyond the scope of this essay, but reflects the now well-documented decline of viewpoint plurality among academics who default overwhelmingly to the centre/hard left, and to a consequent quasi-religious belief that they are the embodiment of pure reason. That this temperament corresponds precisely to the policing of thought appears not to bother them.

Whatever the causes, the practical effect is the informal sanctioning of ideas, interpretations and analyses that clash with this ‘thought policing’ mindset. The lowest level of sanctioning can take the form of bureaucratic obstructionism, for example, university departments refusing to publicise student sponsored speaking events, which they discern as ‘problematic’. More seriously it can shade-off into brow beating, social exclusion and – in classic thought police mode – the denunciation of wrong think to higher authority and punitive measures being exacted, ranging from the expulsion of students from their degree programmes or academic members of staff being removed from administrative positions.

The rise of the anti-university and out-of-boundary markers

What much of this boils down to is that institutions of higher learning are imbricated in various levels of fear – fear of upsetting the feelings of students, fear of negative publicity, fear of reputational damage, fear of damaging career progression, fear of loss of prestige, fear of losing income.

It all builds into an ultimate irony: the fear of discussion, the fear of being creative, the fear of taking intellectual risks, the fear of independent ideas… the fear of thinking… the fear of opening one’s mouth. That’s why, I deduce, I was on the receiving end of such confused and incomprehensible diatribes from university bureaucrats, because they embodied this perfect storm of contradiction. Universities exist, in theory, to extend the boundaries of knowledge and understanding through the freedom to experiment with ideas. In practice, however, the modern, corporately driven, higher education sector pushes universities in the very opposite direction of these values. The university is now the anti-university. Trying to articulate a defence of this edifice thus has a deranging effect on the academic managers charged with upholding its contradictory imperatives who are reduced to berating wrong thinking mavericks in the most Kafkaesque of terms (such as being accused of being naïve and disingenuous at the same time).

Fear, then, often lies at the centre of the paradox of the anti-university, because without fear it would not be able to function. Fear is the only way that these contradictions can be obscured and people warned off questioning them. The manner in which this fear is promoted is through a classic authoritarian play of out-of-boundary markers. The free speech boundary is seemingly wide and articulated through a rhetorical commitment to academic freedom. You have the theoretical right to speak your mind, but so long as you don’t stray outside the boundaries of acceptability prescribed by both by legal constraints and caveats about hate-speech and preserving an atmosphere of ‘tolerance’. Yet, and here is the authoritarian trick, the boundaries are never defined in any concrete manner.

Undefined boundary markers leave people uncertain and fearful. Just like all overbearing systems past and present, the authoritarian proclivities of the corporate university maintain control through the promotion of uncertainty and bureaucratisation. Step across an unspecified boundary and you will be informally sanctioned: you will be called in to be rebuked for no clear reason by your managers, your career advancement will be jeopardised, you will be made to feel anxious about keeping your job. Fear is thus a very helpful tool. Thought policing is so much easier to accomplish when you can get people to police themselves.

The paradox of the modern university

We arrive, then, at the position of the modern university as an increasing paradox. Theoretically adhering to the principles of freedom of thought – in the same manner that the former East European communist states theoretically styled themselves as ‘democratic’ – the universities proceed to controvert the enlightened values that they supposedly exist to encourage. Like those very same totalitarian systems of old, they empower, and enrich, a risk averse and compliant nomenklatura that engages in double-speak and censorship. It is this group that decides what is ‘high risk’ or a ‘safety’ issue. They are the ones who interpret terms like ‘how we manage freedom of expression’, and the ‘duty of care to our student community’.

Just like the former communist societies of the East, the system nurtures the worst kinds of human conduct that incentivises the denunciation of people for wrong-think, while rewarding those who demonstrate ideological conformity to official doctrines, particularly those under the contemporary rubric of ‘diversity and inclusion’. In so doing they privilege those who shout the loudest, those who are the most assertive, and the least oppressed. Those, in other words, who are the most powerful.

Exactly like the European communist states of the past, the system marginalises and sanctions those who do not conform, creating a caste of dissidents. They are created in the same manner that Vaclav Havel described over forty years ago when he observed: ‘You do not become a dissident just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career. You are thrown into it by your personal sense of responsibility, combined with a complex set of external circumstances. You are cast out of the existing structures and placed in a position of conflict with them’. ‘It begins’, he notes, ‘as an attempt to do your work well, and ends with being branded an enemy of society’.

M.L.R. Smith is Professor of Strategic Theory, King’s College London. He is a specialist on dissent, resistance, conflict and the environment, and non-state warfare. Amongst his many publications he has written (with David Martin Jones) Sacred Violence: Political Religion in a Secular Age (2014), the Political Impossibility of Counterinsurgency (2015) and Fighting for Ireland? The Military Strategy of the Irish Republican Movement (1995).