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.