The (Coming) Crisis of Free Speech in the Digital University

In the last couple of years, prominent commentators have increasingly claimed there is a crisis of free speech in higher education. Well meaning participants in reasoned debate are apparently unable to move without being accosted by left-wing activists keen to shut them down or move them on. As I wrote a couple of years ago, the timing of this putative crisis is interesting, given it coincides with what I think are unprecedented intrusions of the state into university life in the United Kingdom:

We’ve already seen the police ask a university for attendees of a fracking debate. The president of the Lancaster Student’s Union was warned by police, who she discovered taking photos of her office, that she may have been committing a public order offence by displaying a poster in her office window. Police used CS gas and pulled a taser on Warwick students who were screaming in terror.  They launch secret operations to spy on peaceful student protestors. University staff are increasingly expected to function as proxy border guards. Police violence is increasingly an expectation at student protests, including some astonishing and egregious instances of brutality. Punitive bail conditions are becoming the norm for student activists and some university managements have gone out of their way to exclude and persecute ‘trouble makers’.

Where could it lead? In Turkey, we’ve seen a purge of the academy, with over 7000 academics dismissed. There’s little sign of any comparable action on the horizon in the United Kingdom, though it’s a salutary reminder of how far such intrusions can go and an obvious incitement to international solidarity. The more salient comparison is with the United States, where Donald Trump’s recent threat to Berkeley neatly illustrates how attacks on the public university and opposition to the gains made by ‘political correctness’ are being linked by contemporary conservatism:

The notion of political balance is being used as a (superficially liberal) stick to impinge upon the intellectual autonomy of the academy, something already in a state of disrepair after many years of the culture wars and managerial attacks on pay and conditions. It seems likely that attempts to enforce this legislatively are going to become a recurrent feature of the policy landscape.

 When we look at the situation in America, it becomes easy to see the parallels to how the ‘crisis in free speech’ is being presented in the United Kingdom. Take for instance, this morning’s Times article about a meeting which took place at the University of Sussex:

Academics were accused of intellectual vandalism yesterday after it was revealed that lecturers at a university advertised a seminar on how to respond to right-wing attitudes among students.

Researchers and lecturers at the University of Sussex held a departmental meeting entitled “dealing with right-wing attitudes and politics in the classroom”. Critics accused them of seeking to suppress free speech and said that the episode reflected a climate on university campuses where student unions, and increasingly universities themselves, were curbing free expression.

Who are these critics? What’s their stake in this debate? Their position remains fascinatingly opaque. The ideological character of universities is changing, with anything that can be construed as a left-wing bias being a potential basis for attack. But attempts to manage that change, to find ways to sustain existing practices in the face of disruption, are vulnerable to attack as well. This thread by Alison Phipps is worth reading in full:

There are multiple things going on here. The crisis of free speech in higher education is overdetermined. For instance we can identify a managerial interest in curbing the freedoms of academic labour, a concern for crisis management as university communications change, a long-term agenda to shift the ideological tenor of the university system, an intrusion of the surveillance state licensed by Prevent, a broader hardening of protest policing, the politicisation of foreign student numbers and the expanding frontiers of Border Force, a more grass roots upsurge in far-right activism on university campuses and many others factors besides.

We need to be careful not to fall into a simplistic analysis which sees this as a right-wing plot in the face of which we must immediately defend ourselves. But we urgently need to reject the idea that the crisis of free speech is a matter of censorious millennials undermining the institutional culture of the university. This is such obvious nonsense as an account of the change underway in our universities that it wouldn’t even be worth engaging with, if it were not promulgated with such vigour by so many influential outlets.

My particular professional interest in this concerns social media. Firstly, the digital university is a transparent ivory tower, such that it has become inordinately more susceptible to (low cost) surveillance while failing to have undergone the democratisation which digital communications was expected to bring. It’s a toxic brew, which leaves those within it naive about the tendency of those outside it to scrutinise and intervene, as well as poorly equipped to respond effectively. Secondly, the intense politicisation of academic speech we’re seeing is only inadequately recognised at best in invocations to public engagement and impact. We need to recover public speech as a labour issue, particularly if the tendency of universities to force people into the public square is going to increase.

These problems are manageable but the prevailing language of social media for academics, in which ‘social media’ is seen as something everyone ‘should use’ (or shouldn’t) does nothing but hinder us in this endeavour. There’s a great field of conceptual detritus concerning ‘impact’, ‘engagement’, ‘social media’, ‘academic freedom’ and ‘free speech’ which we need to clear, if we want to have any hope of recognising the complexity of our present circumstances or responding adequately to them.

Categories: Higher Education

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