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Fear and mistrust on campus

By encouraging lecturers and students to report instances of discrimination, universities are undermining the very concept of academic freedom.

Joanna Williams

Joanna Williams
Columnist

Topics Politics

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‘Are you facing discrimination or do you know someone who is? Don’t suffer in silence. Speak out. Report incidents anonymously.’ One UK university relays this message to staff and students through its website and eye-catching posters displayed on campus. In accordance with the Equality Act 2010, all universities have extensive institutional policies designed to promote equality and diversity among staff and students. Anti-harassment statements and acceptable behaviour policies are just some of the strategies employed to outlaw discrimination and bullying from the university campus. Students and staff are

Policies designed to promote inclusion and diversity within a university will always be contentious. There is tension between speech codes and acceptable behaviour policies on the one hand, and academic freedom on the other. The concept of the ‘inclusive’ university comes into conflict with traditional and vital elements of university life, like the practice of excluding applicants without the necessary exam results and the academic elitism of rewarding achievement. The definition of discriminatory behaviour can be wide-ranging, vague and subjective. Different people will interpret identical incidents as either harassment or simply part of the cut-and-thrust of university life. This lack of objectivity in defining discrimination can lead to a climate of self-censorship where people police their own speech and behaviour to the detriment of free and open debate.

University managers and human-resource departments encouraging staff and students to report incidents of discrimination anonymously creates a particular climate of mistrust and suspicion on campus which is entirely detrimental to the project of education. The visibility of the message suggests discrimination is occurring everywhere and anyone could be a victim of prejudice at any time. The flipside of this is the equally pervasive sense that anyone could be a perpetrator of prejudice despite their intentions or actions. Yet the reality is that universities, far from being dens of racism, sexism and other forms of prejudice, are notable for their atmosphere of politically correct conformism. The demand to be ever vigilant on discrimination leaves us suspicious of everyone, including ourselves: our own ‘unconscious biases’ may unwittingly reveal prejudices we didn’t even know we harboured.

The promotion of anonymous reporting suggests staff and students cannot deal with perceived discrimination without the third-party intervention of university managers. There is an assumption that those doing the reporting need the protection of anonymity because there will be repercussions to their having spoken out which they will be unable to deal with alone. Staff and students become increasingly infantilised as university managers are placed in the position of both protectors and arbitrators. Any sense of academics and students engaging in rigorous intellectual debates and defending controversial ideas is difficult to uphold if challenging colleagues, even with the support of peers, is perceived as requiring management intervention. University managers and those working in human-resource departments do not share a vested interest in defending academic freedom with lecturers.

A justification for management intervention is the vague and all-encompassing definition of discrimination. Discrimination may be considered so subjectively that the alleged victim may not even have any sense of themselves as having been discriminated against. Reports of incidents by witnesses who see discrimination where it was neither intended nor perceived leave alleged perpetrators with no means of defending themselves. Perception is everything and intentions count for nothing. This is even more so when the perpetrator has no knowledge of exactly who they are alleged to have offended. What results is a climate of mistrust where people constantly police themselves and each other against any act, speech or thought that could in any way be misconstrued. This is worse than just infantilising: it undermines the basis of education.

Education, understood as a relationship between teacher and student, is fundamentally premised upon trust. University lecturers need to be able to challenge students and push them out of their comfort zone into intellectual terrain that will make them question their assumptions and understanding. Students need to be able to trust their teachers in order to submit to the challenges set and efforts expected of them. Students can only struggle with difficult knowledge and new concepts if they trust their teacher has a sense of direction, an intellectual mission and a disciplinary project. Similarly, lecturers need to be able to trust their students are wholly engaged in a joint project with them so they can be free to discuss controversial issues and challenging ideas. The lecturer who is constantly monitoring their own words and behaviour cannot lose themselves in such a subject.

The best educational experiences are those where there is an almost conspiratorial sense between lecturer and student of being in it together, speaking frankly and openly, engaging in criticism and having the confidence to share outlandish ideas. This is far too precious to lose. Yet even if no student or staff member ever reports any incident of discrimination anonymously, the climate of fear, mistrust and suspicion that the encouragement to do so creates can’t help but undermine this most basic element of education.

Joanna Williams is education editor at spiked. She is chairing the free spiked drinks debate ‘Academic Freedom in Illiberal Times’ in Westminster on Monday 11 November. Reserve a place here. She is also a lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent and the author of Consuming Higher Education: Why Learning Can’t Be Bought. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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