My University is not a Platform

The current UK government found a few supporters to affirm that a primary function of England’s universities is to provide a platform for free speech.  This is a radical suggestion.  It is undeniably one of the functions of the public realm—of news platforms, of the media, of public space, of Hyde Park Corner—to provide a platform for any and all comers, provided only their speech is lawful.  These are the indigenous territories of flat-earthers and anti-vaxxers.  But until recently, no one ever thought a function of universities is to provide a platform for open debate, however ill-informed, or however inimical to teaching and research.  Nor did they think one could circumvent the main purpose of a university by an invitation from a student group.

Universities have several functions, but the primary ones are the search for and transmission of knowledge, and the exploration and preservation of culture.  As every reader of JS Mill knows, these functions are cramped without freedom of speech. But no Millian ever imagined that a Geology department should hire someone who thinks the Earth is 4004 years old, or that a Psychology department should include those who think a homosexual orientation is a ‘disease’ that it might be ‘cured’ by ‘conversion therapy’.  People who believe such things are epistemic failures, and one function of universities is to keep them well away from our core business.  Of course, as Mill also argued, their views should nonetheless  be lawful: their expression—somewhere or other—keeps us all on our toes.  But Mill did not think, and never said, that their place is in universities.  Just the contrary.  Assuming a measure of expertise in universities, Mill favoured plural voting—a qualified elector could vote, not only for a member representing the constitutency, but also for one representing the university.  (To be clear: I am not in favour of this.)

Admittedly, true cranks are now rare in universities. But there are a few faculty, mostly relics or showmen, kept on epistemic life-support by students too embarrassed to admit they share their views or too timid to challenge them.   Still, university students are adults, and open to being judged by the company they keep.  But I sometimes wonder—yes, this is paternalistic—whether those who choose to study with anti-vaxxers, homophobes, climate-change-deniers etc. know what they are getting in for, and how they will be judged by the wider world upon graduation.  Is that unfair?  Many German university students who were suck-ups, or simply silent, in the company of  Nazi professors, had to live down the evil they tolerated. Not all of them were themselves anti-Semites.

What of autonomous student organizations? They need not, and often do not, share a university’s core functions.  They may revel in foolishness and incompetence, if they wish. The Oxford Union, contrary to what many think, is no part of Oxford University.  It is a private club that sometimes gets its kicks, and its clicks, by inviting ludicrous, incompetent, narcissists to ‘debate’ serious issues.  Being sited at Oxford, it tends to get press. The  Union’s invitations have often been discouraging—a terrible waste for such a distinguished club. But I am not a member of the Union; so its doings are of no concern to me.  On the other hand, the Apollo University Lodge (of which I am a member) is Oxford’s 200-year-old Freemasons’ Lodge.  (It counted Oscar Wilde among its more illustrious members.)   Apollo, too, is just a private club.  But as a member I feel a personal obligation to ensure that idiots, homophobes, and racists are neither members nor speakers. Interestingly, at Apollo, in contrast to the Union, this has rarely been an issue.  But then Freemasonry defends Enlightenment values, and is universal in aspiration.   No wonder the Nazis, and Stalin, repressed it.

4 thoughts on “My University is not a Platform

  1. Hi Leslie,

    I could use your opinion on something. (Well, on lots of somethings — but, one specific thing right now.)

    In some university contexts, the ideal of academic freedom appears to be explicitly intertwined with the ideal of free expression. For instance, the University of Waterloo Act contains this passage: “The objects of the University are the pursuit of learning through scholarship, teaching and research within a spirit of free enquiry and expression.” Similar language also appears in the Acts of some of the younger Ontario Universities.

    I don’t quite know what to make of the legal consequences of this clause, insofar as it bears on the question of whether universities have a special institutional obligation to protect freedom of speech of its members acting in their roles. On the one hand, the clause seems to suggest a university community has reason to tolerate it when associate members provide platforms for academic cranks. On the other, the expression “…the spirit of…” sounds like a weaselly turn of phrase that is begging to be left open to interpretation. I am curious what you make of these provisions.


    • I think it is non-committal. In England, universities have a clear statutory duty to uphold freedom of expression, and also to monitor student events to ensure students are not being drawn into terrorism. Obviously, these conflict. In the US, discussion of academic freedom is inflected by the First Amendment. My own view is that, although overlapping, academic freedom and free speech are different. For one thing, everyone is entitled to free speech. But only teachers, students, and scholarly researchers are entitled to academic freedom. So: if you are a Google scientist who is ordered to help make military weaponry, you are not shielded by academic freedom. But if you are teaching in a Computer Science department you are. More about academic freedom here

      Liked by 1 person

  2. On a related note, my own view has been that some people confuse freedom of expression with entitlement to a specific platform or freedom for criticism. For example, there are some who believe that a University denying them a platform to express their uniformed views constitutes a violation of a fundamental freedom. Are these people not aware of the countless spaces on the Internet where one can post whatever they please without regulation? Furthermore, those would call out views that are highly misinformed, or bigoted are sometimes told they are in expressing criticism committing a violation of their targets’ freedom of expression.

    As you point out, there seems to be some inconsistency in the aims those who advocate for more ‘controversial’ view being entertained on university campuses. Many nowadays complain about the ‘liberal bias’ on university campuses, specifically the dominance of ‘left-leaning’ views among faculty members in humanities and social science fields (Sociology, Philosophy, Gender Theory). The suggested solution to this ‘problem’ is to allow more ‘conservative’ voices on various topics to be heard. As you mention, no one seems to call the platforming of more ‘controversial views’ in geology or psychology or medicine. I mean, is the fact that many sciences are dominated with a ‘Evolutionist bias’ a problem to be solved by hiring more ‘creationist’ professors? While some may object to this comparison between ‘conservatives’ and ‘flat-earthers’ or ‘anti-vaxxers’ or ‘creationists’, I simply wish to know why denying ‘anti-vaxxers’ a platform does not seem to elicit the same accusations of free speech violation against medicine departments than it does for prominent youtube-teir conservatives.

    In any case, thank you for this thoughtful and concise post.


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