The Woke University

Social justice has replaced education

8th  June 2021


Joanna Williams argues that the woke university has replaced educational goals with a mission to inculcate particular values. 


Welcome to university! First, let’s get you a pronoun badge. Here we are, please pick the one that best represents your gender identity. And while you’re doing that, I’ll just show you this big red button on our brand new app. We’re a really friendly campus but if anyone does anything that makes you feel uncomfortable, no matter how slight – perhaps misgendering you, asking where you’re from or raising an eyebrow – do just hit the button to report a microaggression and we’ll have the situation dealt with pronto. Just below that you’ll find the details of your induction programme. In Week One you’re going to work through our modules on consent, inclusion, diversity and unconscious bias. Got that? Good! 


Now let’s show you to your room. We go down here, past the empty plinth on your right and up to building 362. It did have a name, I forget what now, but it was removed after students protested about it a few years back. No one could agree on a replacement so we’re sticking with numbers for the time being. Right, here we are. Before I let you in, you’ll need your identity card, a rape alarm and a swipe pass so we can keep you safe by tracking your movements across campus. Enjoy your first week here!


I’ve invented this monologue. But every single thing described is happening in our universities right now. The woke campus makes headlines when particularly outrageous examples of censorship come to light or when over the top punishments are handed out to staff or students who say the wrong thing. More often than not however, woke is taken for granted; it’s so much a part of the campus culture as to be barely noticeable. This essay makes the woke university visible, shows where it came from and why it is a problem.


University of Woke


In the fevered imagination of university administrators, higher education is fundamentally, structurally, systemically and irredeemably racist. At least, there can be no other explanation for so much time and money being committed to anti-racism initiatives. Worse yet, staff and students are not just racist but sexist, homophobic, transphobic and classist. Anarchy would ensue were it not for an endless cycle of workshops, awareness raising campaigns, anonymous reporting systems and institutional policies setting out exactly how staff and students should relate to each other – right down to which words they should use.


At the University of Manchester, staff have been advised not to use terms like ‘mother’ or ‘father’ but instead to use more inclusive and gender neutral words like ‘parent’ or ‘guardian’. Likewise, ‘men’ and ‘women’ should be replaced by ‘individuals’ while ‘manpower’, ‘mankind’ and ‘chairman’, and should be replaced with ‘workforce’, ‘humankind’ and ‘chair’. The University of Edinburgh provides a list of transphobic phrases that academics and students must not say. It includes ‘all women hate their periods’ and ‘you’re either a man or a woman’. In the US, Northwestern University advises that rather than greeting friends with ‘Hey, guys’, people instead say ‘Hey, everyone’. It also issues guidance for ‘socio economic language’ recommending ‘under-resourced’ rather than ‘inner city’ and ‘working hard to make ends meet’ rather than ‘working poor’.


These lists unwittingly reveal what passes as offensive on today’s campuses. Universities are not having to outlaw swear words, racial epithets or gross insults. Staff and students are far too polite and well-intentioned to utter such phrases in public. No; universities are proscribing common words that are part of most people’s everyday vocabulary. Staff employed to write linguistic guides dictate the limits of acceptability according to their own political perspectives. The upshot is that spontaneous interactions are replaced by a stilted deference to the rules.  


Spontaneous interactions are replaced by a stilted deference to the rules.


It’s not just their words that people are expected to monitor and regulate. Personal behaviour, even unconscious actions, can be labelled as ‘microaggressions’ and get you into trouble. Cambridge University hit the headlines after students were encouraged to report any professor who raises an eyebrow, gives backhanded compliments, turns their backs on people, or refers to women as girls. Its Report and Support website permitted anonymity, meaning offence-givers could be accused and investigated while not knowing they had done anything wrong and having no idea as to whom they may have upset.


Fortunately, Cambridge’s plans met with a backlash. Following national publicity, professors launched an ‘open revolt’ over the snitching site. In a signed public letter, they accused the university of trampling on free speech, and denounced the reporting system for fostering a culture ‘akin to that of a police state’. The university subsequently took Report and Support offline saying that some material ‘was included in error’.


But this goes far beyond Cambridge. One in four of the UK’s top universities allows anonymous recording of microaggressions, microinsults and microinvalidations. Durham University lists ‘not giving someone eye contact’ and ‘constantly criticising and never praising’ as examples of behaviour worthy of investigation.


We might assume that when insults are so ‘micro’ as to be barely perceptible, students have little to worry about. Or we might think they should be encouraged to give the offender the benefit of the doubt or even  – whisper it – strike up a conversation and explain why they are upset. But no. On the woke campus, anonymous reporting is the order of the day. Meanwhile, students who are not suitably offended by a raised eyebrow are given training in the sin of unconscious bias and taught to see themselves as too vulnerable ever to risk an off-the-cuff conversation. Meanwhile professors – particularly the older, paler, male variety – are fair game for being disciplined off the back of anonymous and potentially groundless accusations.


‘Not giving someone eye contact’, and ‘constantly criticising and never praising’ are examples of behaviour worthy of investigation.


At the University of Woke, people are either vulnerable, oppressed and offended; or bigots, blasphemers and heretics. Of course, no one gets to choose which side they are on. Roles are allotted based on ‘immutable characteristics’ such as skin colour, gender identity and sexuality. Those who transgress are brought in line through practices like issuing ‘trigger warnings’ at the start of lectures.


Once considered outlandish, now routine practice, trigger warnings are statements giving advance notice that topics covered might upset, offend or trigger flashbacks or panic attacks in those who have suffered trauma. Psychologists disagree about the efficacy of trigger warnings in helping victims of abuse. But this largely misses the point: abuse and trauma is defined so widely that actual victims of specific incidents are lost in the disarray. Instead, trigger warnings teach all students that they are psychologically vulnerable in the face of any discussion about race, sex or class, no matter how historical the material or abstract the discussion. Mandatory trigger warnings discipline lecturers; they serve as a reminder that students are extremely sensitive and that they must tread carefully and stick to the script in order not to offend.


The assumption that students are so vulnerable as to find even mundane aspects of campus life psychologically harmful is matched by the belief that potential sources of trauma lurk everywhere – in course reading lists, the architecture of campus and myriad daily interactions. Any challenge to this new orthodoxy seems, at best, mean spirited. So, on the woke campus, sensitivity is not challenged but cultivated. This drives demand for colouring books, cookies, petting zoos and meditation workshops at exam time – or, better still, the replacement of exams with less intensive forms of assessment. It underpins demands that statues, like those of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, are pulled down and that buildings be renamed. 


Trigger warnings teach all students that they are psychologically vulnerable in the face of any discussion about race, sex or class.


In September 2020, the University of Edinburgh renamed David Hume Tower ‘40 George Square’ after the philosopher was accused of racism. The university said: Hume’s comments on race, ‘though not uncommon at the time, rightly cause distress today.’ Clearly, staff do not see it as their role to explain to students, calmly and rationally, that if they cannot cope with mere mention of a globally and historically renowned philosopher then perhaps university is not for them. Far from it. Instead, the author of the statement accepts that students are ‘rightly’ distressed. This suggests that – in the face of Hume’s alleged sins – distress is the ‘correct’ emotional response. This begs the question: are the many people not distressed by the existence of David Hume Tower racist? Emotions seem to be as important as words in the woke university. 


Political panics


Students assumed to be vulnerable need the campus to be a safe space free from offensive speech, emotional distress and intellectual confrontation. Never mind that confronting unfamiliar and seemingly offensive ideas can be educational; what students rapidly learn is that cries of psychological harm often lead to political wins. A prime example of this tactic in operation is the now widespread movement to decolonise higher education. The curriculum is of particular interest to the decolonisers because, in the woke university, education is not primarily to inform, still less to challenge, but to affirm. Students expect to have their identity validated through their course material. 


The decolonise movement spread from the USA to South Africa and the UK. It builds on ideas that emerge from critical race theory: a key demand is that universities acknowledge and take steps to rectify the legacy of colonialism which, they argue, can be found in the structure of universities and the nature of knowledge taught and pursued, as well as in racism more broadly. In practice, this often means arguing for the removal of statues and plaques from campus and the rewriting of reading lists and course content to de-centre work that foregrounds ‘white’ knowledge. The content of the curriculum, campaigners argue, continues to reflect and perpetuate a colonial legacy, through the presentation of a white, western intellectual tradition as universal. The privileging of Kant, Shakespeare and Keynes, they suggest, normalises a Euro-centric and Enlightenment-focused view of the world.


In the woke university, education is not primarily to inform, still less to challenge, but to affirm.


Decolonisers ignore the fact that prominent black intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois and C.L.R. James, revelled in access to canonical works. ‘I denounce European colonialism’, wrote C.L.R. James in 1980, ‘but I respect the learning and profound discoveries of Western civilisation.’ Today, in contrast, it is not only woke students but universities themselves that have no respect for the profound discoveries of Western civilisation. Those wanting to decolonise the curriculum find that university managers already endorse their cause. The days of expecting students to imbibe great books or enculturating a new generation into a monolithic western canon are long gone. Postmodernism dictates that works of literature and philosophy are simply ‘texts’ and neither intellectual content nor stylistic beauty particularly matters. 


Rather than posing a challenge to institutions, the decolonise movement simply confirms mainstream academic thought. In the woke university, both staff and students share the same intention: to decentralise the western intellectual tradition in favour of teaching content that can be shown to represent biological, rather than intellectual, diversity. 


Enthusiasm for the decolonise movement is driven by an exaggerated sense of racism on campus. According to Universities UK (UUK), an umbrella group representing university vice chancellors, almost a quarter of black, Asian or minority ethnic students have experienced racial harassment while at university. That’s right. Despite bringing together overwhelmingly left-leaning academics and earnest, politically correct young students; and despite having invested huge sums of money in anti-racism campaigns, initiated countless awareness-raising activities and employed numerous diversity champions, UUK is convinced that universities are, even today, hotbeds of racial harassment. Jo Grady, the general secretary of the lecturers’ union (UCU) agrees. In a damning indictment of her members, she claims black students have to confront ‘a university system that is at best ambivalent towards you, and at worst openly hostile’. 


The decolonise movement simply confirms mainstream academic thought.


But here’s a puzzle. If universities are implicated in racial discrimination then surely it’s not surveys and recommendations that’s needed but legal intervention? If black academics are routinely paid less than white colleagues for the same work and black students are awarded lower marks for turning in the same assignments then universities must be in breach of, at very least, the Equality Act (2010). If vice chancellors really think that the universities they run are systematically discriminating against black students, they should stop writing reports and call in the police.


Of course, this will never happen. For a start, the police would have their work cut out. According to UUK’s Tackling Racial Harassment in Higher Education report, ‘Over half of staff who had experienced racial harassment described incidents of being ignored or excluded because of their race’. The most common form of racism reported by both staff and students is our old friend the microaggression, defined as ‘subtle, less “overt” forms of racism’. Even today, it is hard to justify arresting people on account of their body language or for things they have not said.


Woke segregation


Micoaggressions do not, it seems, lend themselves to microsolutions. In the summer of 2020, Melz Owusu, soon to be PhD student at the University of Cambridge and former sabbatical officer at the University of Leeds, launched a GoFundMe campaign to set up a Free Black University. This will be an institution focused solely on the needs of black students with a decolonised curriculum taught through online lectures ‘exploring radical and transformational topics’ together with a virtual library of radical readings; a journal and podcast as well as an annual conference for black radical thinkers. All of this is needed, Owusu argues, because existing universities are ‘built on colonisation – the money, buildings, architecture – everything is colonial’. The consequence for black students is that: ‘They fail. They experience racism all the time and the university doesn’t necessarily deal with that in the best way, or deal with it at all.’ 


It is widely accepted that black students are less likely to gain entry to top universities, more likely to drop out of higher education, and less likely to leave with a good degree. But just how true is this? According to the 2011 national census, non-white people make up roughly 13 per cent of the UK population. Yet 20 per cent of all students in the UK are from BAME communities. Among league table-topping Russell Group universities, this figure rises to 21.6 per cent. There hardly seems to be a colour bar on students entering higher education.


So what about academic achievement? In 2020, 36 per cent of white students came away with first-class degrees compared to only 18 per cent of black students: seemingly clear evidence of a racist attainment gap. But look more closely: 28 per cent of Asian and 32 per cent of mixed ethnicity students also got firsts. And when we move down a rung the gap narrows considerably. Forty five per cent of both black and white students got a 2.1 degree, as did 44 per cent of Asian and 47 per cent of mixed ethnicity students. The more we take into account factors such as the type of university attended, prior attainment, subject choice, parental income and term time employment, the smaller the ethnic attainment gap becomes. 


Micoaggressions do not, it seems, lend themselves to microsolutions.


Look at statistics and even a narrative of widespread racism is difficult to sustain. According to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in the three-and-a-half years up to January 2019, universities received ‘an average of just 2.3 total staff complaints of racial harassment, and 3.6 total student complaints of racial harassment’. This is less than one complaint per year. Around 4 in 10 institutions reported no complaints of racial harassment from staff; around 3 in 10 received no reports from students. Almost 1 in 5 institutions received no complaints of racial harassment from either group. It seems universities may be getting more right than they are prepared to acknowledge. 


Despite this good news, under the guise of woke, segregation is making a comeback. In 2016, serious debate was had about the need for universities to establish LGBT-only halls of residence on campus, following the lead of many US institutions and the example of Birmingham University in the UK. American universities increasingly offer living and recreational facilities solely for the use of black students as well as black graduation ceremonies. Defenders of woke segregation often point to the highly successful historically black universities in the US. But these universities were established out of necessity at a time when black people were prohibited from attending most colleges. Today’s calls for segregation are less a demand for equality and more an expression of campus identity politics. 


Those backing the Free Black University wrongly assume that black students need black tutors, black classmates and a black curriculum in order to succeed. This insults the many black students who have not only succeeded in higher education, but who have also gone on to make significant contributions to global scholarship. Today’s anti-racism campaigners are quick to argue that meritocracy is a disguise for white privilege and that university marking schemes should not penalise students for spelling or grammatical errors. This suggests they have little faith in the intellectual capacity of black students. If black students have received a lower standard of schooling then it is this that must change; black students are ill served by differential low expectations. 


Under the guise of woke, segregation is making a comeback.


Of course, rather than looking to raise the educational standards of all students, universities run training sessions in ‘concepts of white privilege, fragility and allyship, and intersectionality’. Black students are taught to see themselves as victims of racism, while white students are to be taught about white privilege, white fragility, white allyship, microaggressions and intersectionality, and will be expected to undertake racialised unconscious-bias training. In the woke university, challenging racism means racialising and dividing students. Without pushback, segregation becomes the logical endpoint. UUK suggests: ‘It may be helpful to have separate spaces for black, Asian and minority-ethnic staff and students to discuss among themselves, as well as discussion forums for white students and staff’. 


Tackling campus racism today seems to be less about serving the best interests of black staff and students and more about shoring up the moral authority of institutions that have become devoid of all purpose. With students now fee-paying consumers, higher education has become a business like any other. Vice chancellors don’t, it seems, like to think of themselves as mere purveyors of a commodity. But they seem incapable of articulating the intellectual importance of universities. Unable to defend academic disciplines that stand accused of Eurocentrism or elitism, they fall back on shaping ‘the minds and attitudes of the next generation’ and ‘driving cultural change’. We need to ask whether racialising and segregating staff and students is a price worth paying for university leaders to feel good about themselves.


The campus free speech crisis


Institutional speech codes and language guides, as well as training in unconscious bias and microaggressions, all send warnings that words are powerful and can give offence. They must be carefully considered rather than thrown around spontaneously. There is, of course, some truth in this. If I thought words lacked all power to provoke and persuade, I would not be writing this book. But there must also be room for people to speak freely, disagree, change their minds and test received wisdom. This is particularly the case in a university. Learning depends upon putting your own ideas into words, understanding how language conveys emotions, and honing arguments in response to ideas with which you disagree. The woke university chills speech and prevents students from learning these invaluable lessons.


At the time of writing, Lisa Keogh, a law student at Abertay University in Dundee, is facing formal disciplinary proceedings and possible expulsion from her course. Her crime? In a seminar discussion, Keogh made the outrageous claim that ‘women have vaginas’. This may be a simple biological fact. It may also be something almost every person over about eighteen-months of age knows to be true. But a central tenet of wokedom has it that sex is nothing more than a label arbitrarily assigned at birth and that self-declared gender is all important. Keogh transgressed. She told The Times: ‘I didn’t intend to be offensive but I did take part in a debate and outlined my sincerely held views. I was abused and called names by the other students, who told me I was a “typical white, cis girl”.’ For blaspheming in this way, Keogh’s ambition to become a lawyer may now lie in ruins.


Keogh is being formally investigated because her comments were considered ‘offensive’ and ‘discriminatory’. But this makes little educational sense. If the university thinks she has said  something untrue, then perhaps biology professors could be called upon to adjudicate the veracity of her claims. Keogh echoes radical feminists who are also of the view that women have vaginas and that physical differences between the sexes are real. So is an entire strand of feminist thought outlawed from a module specifically intended for the study of gender and feminism? The government has launched repeated enquiries into the law around gender recognition. Are law students prevented from discussing current legal issues?  


Debate should be at the very heart of higher education. 


Student lawyers who wilt at arguments they disagree with are in for an almighty shock when confronted with the reality of an adversarial courtroom. If they find words alone too offensive to contemplate, they will not be able to deal with the actual crimes those appearing in court are alleged to have committed. If students can’t discuss the possibility that men might be stronger than women in the safety of an academic seminar, how can they possibly deal with the graphic details of a murder or rape in the courtroom?


Debate should be at the very heart of higher education. Keogh knows this better than her lecturers. ‘You have got to be able to freely exchange differing opinions otherwise it’s not a debate’, she says. But in the woke university, dissent is forbidden. All too often, students are expected to fall in line or keep quiet. 


Has it always been this way? 


Universities, in bringing together bright young minds from diverse walks of life, have always been hotbeds of political activism. The Sorbonne in Paris and The University of California at Berkeley became global cultural reference points following the student protest movements of the 1960s. When I was a student at Birmingham University in the mid-1990s, politics had moved on from the mass protests of the civil rights era but there were feminist Take Back the Night marches to go on, as well as noisy demonstrations about the introduction of student loans. But politics was also becoming more serious and professional in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. One evening I went to get a drink in the student bar only to find all the staff wearing the same university-crest emblazoned t-shirts inscribed with, ‘I don’t laugh at racist jokes,’ across the front. Even in my slightly drunken state I remember finding this odd. Did they expect praise? I didn’t laugh at racist jokes either, although I’d certainly heard a few growing up. Was I supposed to feel guilty? 


Perhaps I have over-thought this one t-shirt slogan. But, with the benefit of hindsight, the mid-90s does seem to mark the beginning of a turning point in higher education. It’s the point at which expansion really takes off, with more students being admitted and a whole tranche of polytechnics taking on the ‘university’ label. It’s also the point at which, from a student’s perspective at least, generous state funding began to be rolled back and student grants were frozen and replaced by loans. In the seminar room, critical theory was gaining ground – especially in humanities departments. My English Literature degree taught me far more about structuralism, post-structuralism, feminism, Marxism and deconstruction than about any literary genre or era. It was also the first time I came across the phrase ‘political correctness’. 


Just as universities have always been, in different ways, political, so too have the limits of what can be said on campus been policed. As I note in my book Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity, there has never been a golden age of unfettered free speech on campus. When the very first universities were established over 800 years ago, it was the all-powerful church that dictated what could and could not be discussed. When the church stepped back, the state stood in. Institutions had a legal ‘in loco parentis’ responsibility when the age of majority was still 21. Students took over the policing of debate themselves with the first ‘no-platform’ campaigns waged against far right speakers in the 1970s. Since this time, the demand ‘No Platform for Fascists’ has expanded to encompass gender critical feminists, mainstream politicians and gay rights advocates.


Despite a long history of campus politics and campus censorship, something has clearly changed in the past few years. Today, threats to academic freedom come from multiple directions. Students who campaign to have lecturers sacked and invited speakers no-platformed are backed-up by diversity officers and administrators happy to maintain the campus as a safe space. Government policies, such as the Prevent Duty, compel universities to monitor and report students deemed at risk of radicalisation and bar extremist speakers. Meanwhile, academics themselves sign petitions and share social media posts calling for their colleagues to be fired, or, at very least, silenced.


The upshot is a campus culture where debate is discouraged and ‘correct’ speech – be it declaring pronouns or pledging allegiance to Black Lives Matter – is compelled. Academics and students alike quickly learn that when the costs of mispeaking are so high, it is better to say nothing. Academic freedom is, at best, an empty slogan to be wheeled out only when politically expedient, or, at worst, stigmatized as a right wing trope.


Academics Against Academic Freedom


In the woke university, it is professors who are most responsible for undermining academic freedom in practice and degrading it as a value. As I write, lecturers are among those sharing and signing an open letter from Birkbeck Students Anti-Racist Network, a group that appears to have just one aim: the firing of Eric Kaufmann, a professor of politics at the institution. The letter calls for Birkbeck management to fully investigate the activities of Eric Kaufmann, and make public its findings.’ It notes that:

Birkbeck prides itself on its commitment to inclusion, diversity and critical scholarship. The University claims that the college community is ‘safe, supportive and inclusive of all’ and furthermore, was ‘committed to addressing racism and challenging injustice in all that we do, including our educational programmes’. Clearly, Kaufmann does not align with these core values.


The signatories condemn Kaufmann for his failure to align with core institutional values. They take for granted that a university should have values above and beyond the pursuit of knowledge. But this is a strange assumption. The university is a collection of buildings and a very large group of people. Who speaks for the institution as a whole? Who gets to decide what exactly are institutional values? Yet holding (or being assumed to hold) opposing values is considered justifiable grounds for public denunciation. Kaufmann further stands accused of ‘manipulating’ free speech and using its guise to ‘reproduce racist and anti-migrant discourse’ – a slanderous statement. The fact that academics – and indeed Kaufmann’s own Birkbeck colleagues – are prepared to sign and share this letter reveals the extent to which academic freedom is not only misunderstood but demonised. Heterodox views are not welcomed as a prompt for debate but publicly rejected in a display of moral outrage and political conformity. 


The campaign against Kaufmann came hot on the heels of Neil Thin’s suspension from the University of Edinburgh following complaints from students about his social media posts. Thin, a senior lecturer in social anthropology, stood accused of making ‘racist and sexist’ comments and for Tweets ‘variously described as ‘triggering’, ’offensive’, ‘bigoted’, ‘racist’, ‘misogynistic’, and ‘transphobic’’. The evidence against him amounts to his Twitter biography declaration that ‘civilisation is for everyone’, a defence of J.K. Rowling and a joke questioning whether NASA will announce that the ‘man in the moon’ is ‘actually non-binary’. Rather than defend a member of their academic staff, Edinburgh University initially acquiesced to the students’ demands before repealing Thin’s suspension following the intervention of the Free Speech Union.


The group most often targeted for campus censorship today is gender critical feminists. Back in 2019, Open University criminology Professor Jo Phoenix was scheduled to speak on the topic of ‘Trans rights and justice: complicated contours in contemporary sex, gender and sexualities politics when thinking about issues of justice and punishment’. Students duly protested. They published a leaflet headlined ‘SHUT THE FUCK UP TERF’ alongside a picture of a gun. The accompanying statement read: ‘Delegitimising trans people is part of a misogynistic, colonialist and violent ideology… She is covering up her bigotry in academic jargon and claiming to just “raise questions”, but this is a typical disguise for prejudice.’ The university acquiesced and cancelled Phoenix’s guest lecture. 


A subsequent independent review of the cancellation led to a public apology from the University’s Vice Chancellor and the wider revelation that staff and students at Essex feel: ‘constrained to self-censor their speech and activity because of concerns about how we manage the balance between freedom of speech and our commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion.’


The findings of the review reveal the extent to which Essex University had been ‘captured’ by the LGBT campaign group Stonewall. It points out that, ‘the University’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Annual Report for 2018-19 states that one of the University’s equality objectives is to consistently be ranked in the Stonewall Top 100 employers list.’ The report notes that the university’s harassment policy ‘states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is. To that extent the policy is misleading’ and that the relationship between Stonewall and the University, ‘appears to have given University members the impression that gender critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution.’


Perhaps inevitably, Essex faced a backlash for having apologised to the cancelled speakers. Academics have signed (yet another) open letter expressing their ‘deep disappointment’ with the report into events and urging the University to continue its relationship with Stonewall. They go on to describe the report as a ‘clear threat’ to a ‘higher education system that is inclusive to all.’


Meanwhile, the lecturers’ union, UCU, fails to protect members who are targeted by woke mobs of academics and students. In response to the government’s proposed Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, UCU said: ‘There are serious threats to freedom of speech and academic freedom from campus, but they come from the government and university managers, not staff and students.’ It would undoubtedly be better not to have academic freedom policed and enforced by a government that shows scant regard for the importance of free speech and, indeed, little understanding of what academic freedom actually entails. But when so many in our universities are intent on denying there is even a problem, we cannot underestimate the monumental scale of the cultural change that is needed. 


Where did the woke university come from? 


Academic freedom has far more than just rhetorical significance. It is crucial to what should be the fundamental justification of a university: the unfettered pursuit of knowledge. Put simply, academics need to be able to ask questions that challenge the consensus in their disciplines, and in the public sphere beyond the university, without fear of disapprobation from their own institution. Without such safeguards, academics are limited to researching and teaching only that which confirms currently received ideas. 


Popular disregard for academic freedom shows the extent to which the very purpose of higher education has changed. Rather than intellectual risk taking, we have a culture of conformity. Rather than dissent, we have consensus. Rather than challenging the status quo, we have adherence to predetermined values. And, as we have seen, so often nowadays, these values are woke.


Why woke? Some argue woke values took off in universities with the dominance of critical theory. But this can make it seem as if postmodernism won out because of the strength of its ideas or that it achieved success through a Gramscian-inspired ‘long march through the institutions’. In reality, the ascendancy of woke has less to do with the intellectual authority of critical theorists and more to do with the abject failure of an intellectual elite to defend enlightenment values such as rationality, reason, liberty, progress and tolerance. Even in the 1960s, radical young scholars often found themselves pushing at an open door as an older generation of professors no longer had the confidence to maintain traditional scholarly principles they saw as tainted following the experience of war in general and the holocaust in particular. It was not long before they also struggled to defend the political gains of the civil rights movement and the cultural canon. 


Universities unable to pursue knowledge and preserve culture as ends in themselves, seek out a new purpose. In the years after World War Two it seemed clear that universities could, through championing science, contribute to both the public good and national prosperity. But by the 1990s public good was being defined along far more individualistic lines. Rather than national prosperity, the goal was for individuals to achieve social mobility. The job of the university was to take students from disadvantaged backgrounds and provide them with sufficient credentials to enable them to get a job with a fractionally higher salary than they would have had without higher education. 


This mission was sold to fee-paying students as a means of securing a return on their investment. Employability skills came with a side order of customer satisfaction. One thing students, already perceived as vulnerable, were assumed to desire above all else was safety. Across the higher education sector as a whole, this came to be understood as emotional safety. It was to be met by acquiescing to all demands premised upon claims to vulnerability, removing challenge and affirming students self-perception. In short, students were to be offered freedom from speech rather than freedom of speech. By accident rather than by design, universities find themselves with a new moral purpose: the pursuit of woke.


Training a new elite


It begins long before students step foot on campus. Admission to the woke university requires far more than just solid academic credentials. Personal statements specifying hours spent volunteering for social justice causes or testimonies detailing struggles with identity-based discrimination certainly help. But even this might not be enough. Securing a place may depend upon circumstances entirely beyond an applicant’s control: their gender, ethnicity, and sexuality may all play a part. 


US universities began to use affirmative action programmes to increase representation of groups historically excluded from educational opportunities because of their race or sex as the Civil Rights movement took off in the 1960s. Many agreed this was a necessary corrective to decades of legal discrimination and its lasting legacy of social and economic disadvantage. More controversially, at some institutions, affirmative action included the use of ‘racial quotas’ to ensure recruitment of a certain proportion of students from different ethnic groups. 


In 2019 the Supreme Court ruled that quotas were unconstitutional amid a growing outcry that Asian students in particular were unfairly penalised by this system. Nine States banned affirmative action altogether. Elsewhere, quotas have been replaced by more general goals supported by ‘targeted recruitment’ programmes. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and subsequent Black Lives Matter Protests, calls were made for a return to quotas and for bans on affirmative action to be overturned. Signatories to an open letter to Stanford University’s president and provost, organised by Stanford Black Postdoc Association, called for 20 per cent of all students, postdoctoral researchers, staff and faculty at the university to be African American.


In the UK, with a history of social discrimination but not legal segregation, univeristies have never formally implemented affirmative action programmes or quotas. However, recent years have seen increased pressure on elite institutions, from the media and campaigners, to increase the number of places awarded to black and ethnic minority students. Oxford and Cambridge are scrutinised each year and the number of black students admitted becomes the topic of national news stories. 


In response, these universities run targeted outreach and recruitment programmes to attract youngsters from communities that would not habitually send students to Oxbridge. Foundation Years allow access for non-traditional students who have academic potential but lack the grades to progress straight into the first year of a degree. Such schemes are to be welcomed for demystifying complex admissions processes and encouraging talented students from all backgrounds to apply for a place. 


Many universities go further and exercise positive discrimination through the awarding of ‘contextual offers’. This means that students from certain postcode areas, or who attended schools that do not traditionally send pupils to top universities, are offered places with lower grades than their more privileged classmates. This risks enshrining the assumption that youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds are inherently less capable than their more privileged peers.


The woke university has a biologically diverse but values-aligned student body taught by politically homogeneous instructors. 


Elite universities have traditionally been bastions of privilege with a student body that was predominantly white, male and wealthy. Countless talented individuals were denied admission and, as a result, access to the well paid professional roles that a degree from a top institution opens up. But attempts to compensate for disadvantage at a community level through lower entry requirements for individuals are not without problems. 


Universities that are primarily concerned with the pursuit of knowledge need to be academically elitist, that is, places for the brightest students to learn from professors at the forefront of their discipline. However, if universities are not all that invested in the pursuit of knowledge and are not especially keen on a commitment to truth, then prior academic attainment is less of a concern. If universities are more concerned with bringing about social justice, or the enactment of particular institutional values, or the promotion of diversity and inclusion, then it matters less that students have the correct credentials and more that they contribute to the creation of a diverse student body.  


And this is where we find ourselves today. The woke university has a biologically diverse but values-aligned student body taught by politically homogeneous instructors. Induction and ongoing training sessions reinforce the importance of holding the correct views and teach the correct terminology for expressing such views. Dissent is squashed, consensus insisted upon. The decolonised curriculum struggles with Newton, Darwin and Hume but embraces unconscious bias training and diversity workshops. Education can still be found but both academics and students have to search long and hard for it. Nonetheless, grades keep rising and certificates keep on coming.


Universities are not the institutions they once were.


Universities are not the institutions they once were. They are no longer terribly bothered about educating students. At least, not if ‘educating’ means imparting knowledge; facilitating discussion and debate; or encouraging students to read widely, ask questions and engage in research by themselves. Education now plays second fiddle to a seemingly far more important project of training students in a woke worldview. Indoctrination is not antithetical to higher education: it is the whole point. 


Abertay University hit the headlines, but in silencing and investigating student Lisa Keogh, it is simply enacting what higher education institutions everywhere now view as their primary role: preparing young adults for the woke workplace. Students might leave university having read little, discussed less and unable to formulate a critical thought. They may have become illiberal, intolerant and ignorant. But they will be fluent in an ever-shifting woke vocabulary and know the exact phrases required to have transgressors cancelled. A century ago, universities trained up young men to work in the colonies, managing and civilising natives. Today, universities play a similar role: only now, the natives are at home.



Joanna Williams is Director of Cieo.


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