On Michael Jackson and Martin Heidegger

 

Michael Jackson had three qualities that would have made him comfortable with some members of the Roman Catholic hierarchy.  He loved an audience, he wore astonishing garments, and he pretended that young boys consented to be his lovers.

Martin Heidegger had three qualities that would have made him comfortable with some members of Alternative für Deutschland.  He loved his country, he had an astonishing way with the German language, and he pretended the Holocaust was not happening.

For work/life separatists what should engage our attention about Jackson and Heidegger is solely their work.  Yes, their lives were entangled with evil—and of course the work/life separatist concedes that merits a preface or a footnote–but no one interested in popular music of the last century can ignore Thriller and no one interested in post-Kantian German philosophy can ignore Being and Time, and that is what matters.

The separatist is correct to this extent: any suggestion that we should now stop listening to Jackson, or stop reading Heidegger, would be seriously wrong.  There are things of real value that we would lose.  Anyway, where would it stop?  Oscar Wilde may have been a brilliant writer and gay hero, but his rent-boys were boys.  Charles Maurras may have been a critic of ‘scientific racism’, but he was an enthusiast of state-sponsored anti-Semitism.   And exactly how old was Alcibiades during those early, flirty afternoons with Socrates?  And what exactly did the writer of Matthew’s gospel mean when he had the Jewish crowd chant, “His blood be on us and on our children!”

So you see the appeal of work/life separatism.

And yet:  We cannot rule out of hand the possibility that we will have a deeper understanding—musicological, not just historical—of Jackson’s work if we keep front and centre the fact that the loves in his lyrics may be pederastic.  We cannot dismiss the possibility that we only appreciate Heidegger’s disempowering metaphysics of ‘Being’ if we see it as a screen for contemptuous attitudes towards actual human beings.  But note: whatever merit there may be in such conjectures, it argues, not for erasing the works from the canon or boycotting them, but for keeping the lives conjoined to the works.  It argues against separatism, but in favour of inclusion.

However, another point also needs to be made.  Jackson and Heidegger are dead.  Jackson is not engaging in the orgy of boy-rape sheltered by misogynist religions.  Heidegger is not torching synagogues or introducing the Führerprinzip into university governance. (Though plenty of non-Nazi Vice-chancellors of English universities appear to think it has attractions.)

We would have reason to feel differently if the rapist was not a dead singer but our brilliant, energetic colleague down the hall; or if the anti-Semite were the smiling, emollient leader of our laboratory.  In such cases we have a positive duty to speak up and to speak out.   Academic freedom and tenure, where they exist, are not only there to ensure we can flog some abstruse doctrine hardly anyone cares about. They are also there to ensure we can do our other duties to the university and to our students.  In most cases, we will also have a reason (though not a duty) to deny the rapist or racist what JS Mill called our ‘good offices’—our collaboration, our collegiality, our company.

But what about the works that make them famous, or the lectures that bring them prizes?  Is their value somehow diminished by the rape, or tainted by the racism?   In most cases, no.  Nonetheless, while the rapists and racists are still alive, it is difficult for us to honour the work without also, to some extent, honouring the worker.   So there are matters of moral consequence and proportion to attend to.  And we can always return to give the work its due when the worker, like Jackson and Heidegger, is no longer in any position to derive influence from the honour.

Great artists and great thinkers often crave immortality through their works.  Some of them believe their works will bestow it.  They can hardly complain if we decide to wait before kick-starting their immortal lives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Professor Finnis and Academic Freedom

My distinguished former colleague, brilliant jurist, reactionary Catholic ideologue, and career homophobe, John Finnis, is once again attracting the attention of Oxford’s law students.  This comes in waves.  In the past, it was triggered by things like John’s attempts to defend frightening moral views, or by his legal interventions on the side of prejudice and superstition, or by his disowning Oxford’s standards of academic integrity (when breached by students who share his views).  What could have triggered the ludicrous new petition to have him ‘removed’ from Oxford?

I’ve been away on sick leave, so I may have missed something.  But reliable sources tell me there has been no fresh controversy.   Of course, each year there is a fresh group of students to be shocked by Finnis-type views.  That encounter can be like reading Hastings Rashdall for the first time. (Rashdall argued that the well-being of the ‘higher races’ matters more than the well-being of the ‘lower races’. I was first made to read Rashdall in a tutorial at Oxford.)  Actually, it is more like reading Rashdall and then, just when you stop trembling, walking into your seminar and there is Professor Rashdall! And now it’s your turn to engage in ‘more speech’.

Still, the petition to ‘remove’ Finnis from Oxford is seriously wrong in principle and mistaken in fact.  Principle: To fire someone from an academic post solely on the basis that he defends false or repugnant views is a clear violation of academic freedom.  As my friend Brian Leiter rightly says, it is pretty embarrassing to see Oxford Law students signing up for this.  (I’m hoping none of the signatories was in my classes on freedom of speech.)  Fact: one cannot ‘remove’ someone from a post he does not hold.  John Finnis is long retired from Oxford Law, though it is true that he is still occasionally invited to teach seminars, and also to participate in hiring decisions.  (At Oxford, ‘compulsory retirement’ is fully compulsory only for those who lack friends.)

But is academic freedom the only thing at stake here?  Consider whether, when Hastings Rashdall retired from New College, Oxford, they should have gone looking for a replacement to defend his articulate, philosophical form of racism, or whether they should have kept Rashdall on an occasional basis, to ensure that students of the ‘lower races’ would have some controversial views to take on.  (It was 1910—philosophical racism was still a thing.)  If such a case could be made, it would have to appeal to something like intellectual diversity or pluralism. (‘We need someone to stand up for racism around here!’) But it couldn’t be advanced on grounds of academic freedom:  that protects those who have an academic role, it doesn’t tell us who should have an academic role in the first place.  If there is an objection to not replacing (or re-hiring) racists or sexists or homophobes, it is not an objection from academic freedom.

Now, back to the future:  Oxford’s official response to the Finnis petition was as distressing as the petition itself, though for different reasons.  (I have never understood why, but this particular issue is something our administration gets wrong, time after time.)   The University says, ‘We are clear we do not tolerate any form of harassment of individuals on any grounds, including sexual orientation. Equally, the University’s harassment policy also protects academic freedom of speech and is clear that vigorous academic debate does not amount to harassment when conducted respectfully and without violating the dignity of others.’

Fair enough.  But the petition does not allege that John Finnis engaged in ‘harassment of individuals’ and, myself, I would consider any such allegation incredible. John is a kind teacher, a generous colleague, and a gracious man. However, our student lawyers do understand the University’s obligations under the Equality Act better than the University does.  The University has an obligation not only to eliminate individual discrimination against, and victimisation or harassment of, gay students, but also a positive duty to advance their equality of opportunity and to foster good relations between gay people and straight people at the University.  In its garbled (and partly unlawful) proposals, the petition fairly demands that the University take more seriously its positive equality duties, at least by clarifying how it sees those as relating to academic freedom.

We never run out of opportunities not to discriminate or not to harass, but serious opportunities to advance equality or foster good relations come up only now and then, and only in certain contexts.  In a University, retirements are among those contexts.  Every retirement frees up resources to do new and, if we can, better things.  Instead of replying in its familiar, defensive, way, Oxford should have explained to the petitioners all the ways it has used things like Professor Finnis’s retirement to advance the equality of gay students.  But perhaps that list was too short to merit mention?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Self-help and Free Speech

It is important that speech (along with written communication and artistic expression) be fairly free.  By ‘free’ I mean at least from governmental and other quasi-official constraint, and by ‘fairly’ I mean at least to the extent that it does not constitute fraud, defamation, incitement, group hatred, and the like.  Why? For a number of overlapping reasons that do not add up to anything worth calling a ‘theory’ of free speech.  Speech should be free because: it helps in the quest for reliable knowledge, because it  supports good government, and because it serves individual development and autonomy.   Also (marginally) relevant is the fact that speech that is forced, whether a confession extorted by threat, or a teleprompted lie bought with bribes, tends not to be very interesting as speech.   Together, such considerations support the ‘free speech principle’, a principle that we invoke and contest as such, as a principle of political morality.

Most of the fair and feasible means of protecting speech are already well known.   But once again, there is nothing here worth calling  a ‘theory’.  In one society, a judicially enforced bill of rights may prove vital, in another plural and competing media may be more important, in a third, the willingness of intermediary institutions (professions, churches, universities etc.) to silence the silencers may be key.  And always and everywhere political culture is hugely important.  As we see now in the US, in Poland, and in Hungary, when important political actors, including  senior judges, will not or cannot make good faith efforts to protect speech,  and instead use the principle merely for ideological money-laundering, set to whatever spin cycle their masters demand, no institutional remedies can be counted on to improve things.

But what about self-help?  Two versions of this idea are worth considering.  The first is a matter of hardening one’s defenses.  Along with the Stoics and Jesus, the Buddha says that, even when subject to abuse, we should often turn the other cheek.  We read in the Dhammapada, ‘As an elephant in battle bears the arrow shot from a bow; I will endure insult; For many people have poor self-control.’  Getting angry will often make you unhappy; trying to get even will keep you very busy.   Of course, none of these texts or teachers intend that we should put up with anything and everything.   But before returning fire, it is worth at least considering whether something is an offense against us or is merely offensive to us; it is worth learning the difference between something that is genuinely harmful to individuals or groups, and something that is hurtful to them.  When silencers learn that the elephant can bear the arrow, perhaps they will aim elsewhere or, if we get lucky, lay down arms and proceed by other means.

The other aspect of self-help is more complex.   To silence speakers one needs to find the target.  So it is tempting to think that speech must be more free when speakers are harder to find, for instance, when they are anonymous.   Especially in social media and the rest of the online world, anonymous comment is the norm.   Perhaps some people think of Twitter as the acme of free expression.   But Twitter should give us pause.  What better example of the Buddha’s glum warning, that ‘Many people have poor self-control’?   The availability, and scalability, of  anonymous comment does allow people otherwise at risk of being silenced to get their message out.  But anonymity also weaponizes poor self-control: fraud, incitement, hatred, and defamation–to say nothing of brutality, self-importance, and prideful ignorance– are everywhere that anonymous comment is standard, and it is not clear that what we innocently call the online ‘platforms’ have the means, let alone the will, to cure this.

I’m of two minds, then, when I read that my distinguished colleague Jeff McMahan plans to establish an online Journal of Controversial Ideas where anonymous authors can boldly set out their conjectures and refutations without fear (and, for that matter, also without favour–I can’t see the UK government rewarding anonymous research.)   What then is to stop the JCI becoming a high-brow, polite, version of Twitter: poor self-control expressed in sentential calculus, or blind hatreds ‘proved’ by transcendental arguments or pseudo-Darwinian fairy-tales?  The answer seems to be: peer review, up to the usual scholarly standards.   But we’ve  seen reason to worry about those standards.   Moreover, if the authors are anonymous, how can we know whether the editors are publishing only their students, colleagues, or cronies?  What if they are silencing  people they think we’ve all heard enough of?   And if that is what they are doing, the editors may be engaged in local, mini-, violations of free speech. Of course this is not comparable to governments prohibiting sex-education, or requesting teachers to report on whether and how they are teaching about Brexit.  But it is the kind of thing that the government thinks is wrong with universities.  In my own field, one of the best journals mostly publishes work by: those who have already published in that journal, those who were taught by those who have already published in that journal, those who have slept with anyone in the first two groups, and by members of the editorial board.  (Some of this work is excellent, by the way.)  Moreover, if someone wants to present in academic dress an ‘argument’ that homosexuality is an ‘intrinsic moral disorder’, or that the gender pay-gap expresses women’s ‘choices’, I think it would be decent of them to actually own the argument.

So I’m left with reservations.   I also confess to wondering what the problem in universities actually is that it calls for anonymous journals.  Unlike Jeff  (and unlike our current government), I do not see a general, serious threat to free speech in our universities, though I agree that it is the case in some departments and perhaps in a few institutions.  Nor do I accept his observation that, ‘The threats from outside the university tend to be more from the right. The threats to free speech and academic freedom that come from within the university tend to be more from the left.’  The serious risks to free speech in universities are nearly all from the right.  Since Jeff and I teach at the same University, and since I know we share roughly the same concepts of ‘right’ and ‘left’, Jeff must have a different idea than I do of threats ‘from within the university.’  He must be thinking of the fairly powerless, if noisy, student groups, and of invitations denied people who have no right to our platforms in the first place.   I am thinking of senior administrators, of fundraisers, and of those who manage the university’s real property.  These people have real power, and everywhere I have worked some of them have not been afraid to use it, even if doing so leads to clear violations of free speech (and of academic freedom).

 

 

 

Oxford needs quotas

I’m on sick leave, and so missing the delicious pleasures of Schadenfreude.   My colleagues will shortly begin interviewing teenagers to decide who should get one of the  few places to study law here at Oxford.  I say ‘Schadenfreude’ because, owing to seniority and other things, the closest I ever get to undergraduate admissions these days is dining with colleagues who, over claret at High Table, moan about what an awful job theirs is: having to choose which students they would quite like to teach, and  which ones are then most likely to go to careers at the Bar or in England’s judiciary.

My colleagues mean well.  Most of them mean better than I did when I was charged with selecting England’s elite-to-come, years ago.   There is now more centralization and standardization of interviewing than when I did it.  There is better training;  almost everyone is alert to  the possibility of unconscious bias.  (Having completed their online training, none of my colleagues is conscious of any unconscious bias on their own part.)  There is better institutional outreach, and more evidence that the senior administration are serious about these issues.  There has been real, non-negligible, improvement.

Still: however you slice or dice it, year on year, in subject after subject, Oxford admits a class of undergraduates who not only fail to mirror–even roughly–the relevant population in their age cohort; they look like an entirely different species.  Apart from sex, Oxford (and Cambridge) have made too little progress in admitting disadvantaged groups. The facts are not in serious doubt.  We debate only responsibility and remedies.

Our responsibility–setting aside our inefficient and ineffective system of interviews– -is limited.  This is mostly not our fault.   But we do want to teach in a very special way.  In some subjects, we want to teach in a class size of two or three (no; you did not misread), and so we select students who, we think, will flourish in the unique way we intend to teach.  Of course we know there are other ways to teach undergraduates.  After all, Princeton, Yale, and Harvard all seem to turn out brilliant graduates (and even to replenish the US class system) without anything like our commitment of resources.   I’ve taught in both systems, and I know that, for the faculty, it is more fun and more illuminating to teach students in pairs than in scores.  But it has been a long time since Oxford (or Cambridge) has seriously examined the tutorial model,  though I think the Equality Act probably requires us to do so.  So some share of the blame is ours.

What is manifestly not our fault is the huge disproportion of good applicants who were privately educated–pupils whose parents could give them not only the social capital, but also the cold cash, to be educated in private schools that prepare pupils well for how Oxford has decided to teach.  This state of affairs is not unique.  In most capitalist societies, such advantages can be purchased either directly, by paying school fees, or indirectly, by buying a house in the catchment area of an excellent state school.  England is unique only in how pervasive, overt, and toxic the transaction is.  There is a nice philosophical question whether it is more opprobrious to  buy advantage on the open market or to buy it as a foreseen, welcome, but strictly unintended, consequence of one’s housing choices.  (And these are, for some people, real choices: my own parents gave up a lot of personal pleasures to buy a house in an area where I was likely to get the sort of education that would prepare me for the right sort of university.  Yet being on the (far) left, they would never have considered paying school fees.)

But the fact that something is not Oxford’s fault, in the sense that we are not morally or politically responsible for causing it in the first place, does not show that we are blameless when we have the power to change it yet decline to do so. I think that is our actual position.  We could quickly improve things with quotas:

I propose that Oxford (and Cambridge) should require the over-representation of privately educated undergraduates stay below 300%, which quota should be reassessed every 10 years.

You may be thinking that a 300% over-representation of any social group is already outrageous.  Maybe.  But depending on how one counts it, the current over-representation of private-school students at Oxford is around 600%.   So we could make a huge reduction in offers to the privileged and still leave them with triple what they would be entitled to under mirror-representation.   That would be a lot easier than expanding the size of the university, or spending more on ‘outreach’ to attract new applicants who we might still reject.

Or you may be thinking that my proposal would be discriminatory.  In English law anyway, it would not.  ‘Wealth and status‘ are not ‘protected characteristics’ under  discrimination law.  There are many good reasons we should not set caps on the number of Jewish or Asian students we admit.  But these do not apply to those elevated by economic and social privilege alone, and there is no solid evidence to show that a cap on the (relatively) rich would be indirect discrimination against one of our protected groups.  In practice, all this means is that some children of the privileged will not make the cut at Oxford or Cambridge, but will instead get accepted at one of England’s other, still excellent, universities.

But maybe you are thinking that this would violate a moral norm: ‘each person should be treated as an individual, on her own merits, and not just as a member of some group or other!’  (Myself, I’d dread being treated on someone’s view of my ‘merits’.)   But if that norm is sound, it would already require a huge change in our admissions standards.  We do not now treat the hundreds of applicants ‘each on her own merits’.  Each is treated as a member of a group:  the group who got three A’s at A-level, or the group who scored high on the LNAT,  or the  group that impressed the interviewer, or the group that came from a school we know and respect.   The fantasy that our existing system is attuned to individual merits is laughable.  (And adding ‘contextual’ data–‘he grew up in a rough neighborhood’–is just another form of group-based prediction.)

So here’s an idea.  Let’s experiment.  Let’s set a 300%–or, if you like, 400%–cap on the over-representation of the over-privileged at Oxford.  Without expanding enrollment, that will make lots of space for other good students.  Then let’s see how that works out for us, and for the legal profession in England.  This would, I admit, be a big change.  So I suppose we will have to confront the Ultimate Objection:

‘How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light-bulb?’

‘What do you mean, “CHANGE”???’

How not to get into grad school

“Hi Leslie,

I’m a current third year law student at *******. I’m looking to do an MPhil at Oxford University hopefully. I’m writing just to ask is there anyone in the University who I could speak to about possible topics for my research or anything I need to do in my application. I would really appreciate any guidance. I’m a very motivated student who really wishes to progress within this area.

Kind Regards,

[forename only]”

__________

“Dear Mr ********

You’ll find most of what you need to know about our MPhil, the requirements, and how to apply, here:

https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/admissions/postgraduate/master-philosophy-law

Normally, applicants have a research project in mind when they apply to do a research degree at Oxford. (Part of our admission process, in fact, is assessing the quality of their proposed topic and approach).   Our Director of Graduate Studies might be able to help if anything in our published guidance is unclear.   If you are wondering about possible supervision etc. we would still need to have an idea of your proposed research topic before pointing you to someone in particular.

Yours truly,

Leslie Green

[etc]”

ALSO, READ THIS:

 

How to improve Oxford’s interviews

In my last post, I suggested that we can’t understand the persistence of the Oxford admissions interview without understanding its ceremonial function. It is an initiatory rite that expresses and secures the power of  tutors who get to select which undergraduates they would like to teach.

This conjecture has not met universal favour among my colleagues, or at least not among those who are interviewing this week.  They say, rightly, that I exaggerate the lack of uniformity among subjects when I describe our system as ‘chaos’.  Isn’t our Common Framework for admissions a steadying force? Others mention that this is ‘not a good time’ to cast doubt on the fairness or effectiveness of Oxford admissions.   And several tell me they are adequately warned against unconscious bias and that they are not, in fact, conscious of any unconscious bias in their own interviewing.

There is no doubt that admissions interviews could be, and historically have been, much worse (including when I used to do them).   Still, I think we should abandon them, for the reasons I gave.

Oxford knows how to admit talented students without the ritual. That is how we already admit people to our elite, tutorial-taught, postgraduate degrees, including the B.Phil. and B.C.L.: centrally, on the ‘paper file’, and without interviews.  Many of them come to Oxford without ever having had a tutorial or anything like one, yet they learn how to learn in our system.   Indeed, many of their tutors gave their first Oxford tutorials without ever having had one; they too learned. Yet we persist in the fiction that only by seeing the cut of their jib can we be sure that applicants can work the magic of an Oxford tutorial.

In any case, if interviews are to persist, there is one way we can improve them: No one should interview those they will have the blessing (or burden) of teaching: nemo iudex in causa sua. If an applicant really is incapable of learning in our system, let that determination be made by someone other than the tutor who will be charged with trying to help them.   This argues for more centralized, faculty- or department-led, ‘blind’ interviewing.    Perhaps it even argues for the inclusion of non-specialists (academics in other subjects, or alumni, or even students!) on our admissions panels.

I do not pretend that eliminating or improving interviews will make Oxford more representative of the communities we serve. For that, more drastic measures are needed.   I shall sketch the case for one of them in the New Year.

In the meantime, all good wishes for the holidays, and my sympathies to those of you who are interviewing, or being interviewed. Best of luck!

Why Oxford’s admission interviews persist

A week from now, one of Oxford’s annual rituals begins.   Clueless teenagers arrive in force to be interviewed for an undergraduate place.

I call it a ‘ritual’ because admissions interviews are not really functional; they are ceremonial.  They take place in buildings that, unless you live in Downtown Abbey, seem utterly alien.  Directions are given in code (‘call at the Porter’s Lodge’, ‘meals will be taken in Hall,’ ‘await instruction by the Old Smoking Room’…). The interview is a minuet in which smiling tutors and grimacing candidates dip and swing around questions that are supposed to distinguish minds that are truly graceful from those that are merely trained.  None of it makes our admissions process more accurate, reliable, or fair.

Oxford has many rituals that are harmless, even valuable: gowns, punting, Evensong. The interview is not among these.  It adds expense, work, and stress for no benefit. But compelling empirical evidence of unconscious bias, negative and positive, in face-to-face interviews has no impact on the high priests of the process, the admissions tutors. Some of the most inquiring and skeptical minds on the planet display a touching faith in their own ability to spot a diamond in the rough while never being dazzled by the flash of fool’s gold.  The ritual is hated by applicants, hated by the press, and increasingly hated also by the government.

So why does it go on? Few are actually proud of the fact that, year after year, we admit a vast disproportion of applicants from private (i.e. fee-charging) schools. Only 6.5% of the cohort are educated in such schools, but last year they made up 41% of Oxford’s intake. (The average for all UK universities was only 10%.)   And few of my colleagues are unaware that their counterparts around the world do not have the burden of interviews.

In part the explanation is stasis: ‘”How many Oxford dons does it take to change a light bulb?” “–What do you mean, ‘change’?”’

In part it is chaos: Oxford is a federation of 38 universities, its colleges, without a coherent overall admissions policy.

But I’m afraid that another important part of the explanation is power. Admissions tutors do not want to yield the power to choose the students they would like to teach over the next three or four years of their careers. The interview is a ritual that expresses, secures, and celebrates their power.

It is not generally understood that, at Oxford, those doing the interviewing are those doing the teaching.  Nor is it understood that those at the top of the hierarchy, the Professors, normally have no obligation to teach or admit undergraduates.   It is the Tutorial Fellow, overworked and often underpaid, that does the heavy-lifting. (Oxford, unlike many leading universities in the US or Canada, has not yet shunted undergraduate teaching onto graduate students.) That is why they are so keen to keep control over those they admit, and why a dysfunctional and damaging ritual continues.

But the secret is starting to leak out. British author Alex Preston, writing in what is, I think, intended to be a defence of the interview system, openly acknowledges that he was crammed for it: ‘I was prepared for my interview by the genial headmaster of the Sussex state secondary I attended. We met most mornings in the weeks leading up to that fateful October day and he’d fire questions at me about Eliot, Pound, Woolf and Joyce…’

Preston is touchingly unaware how few applicants have a ‘genial headmaster’ able to coach applicants for ‘most mornings’ over a period of weeks.   But Preston does have enough self-awareness to figure out what the Oxford interview is really for:

the interview was about my potential tutors deciding whether I was a pupil who would manage to stick out the three years of essays and exams, whether I’d bore them in tutorials, or infuriate them…’

An ineffective ritual that leaks bias into  admissions is sustained by the tutors’ desire not to admit students who might ‘bore’ or ‘infuriate’ them (or, I suppose, who might threaten or offend them).  Even our students have started to figure it out.

What is to be done?   We are unlikely to abolish interviews (see above, under ‘change’ and ‘chaos’); but there are  ways to limit their damage. I shall explain two in the next post.

Why it is hard to be a campus conservative

When the right claims that US universities have been taken over by ‘liberals’, and that faculty and students of ‘conservative’ opinions are afraid to speak up, they do not mean that its campuses are now swamped by people who think we should restrict liberty only to prevent harm to others, or who demand that social inequalities benefit the worst-off. They mean American universities are full of people who believe things like this:

  • Species arose through natural selection.
  • No author of any gospel ever met Jesus.
  • Homosexuality is a normal variant in human behaviour.
  • The United States lost a war against Vietnam.
  • Human activity is a significant cause of climate change.
  • The United States has worse public health than do countries with nationalized health care.

Even more threatening to conservatives, however, is not these individual claims which are endorsed by all but a minority in serious universities. It the dominance of  habits of thought, modes of inquiry, and sensibilities of outlook that lead people to these conclusions. But none of this is because US universities are bastions of liberalism. It is because they are universities.

Of course, as Mill explained, every society should tolerate some truth-deniers. (He went further. He said that if a society lacks truth-deniers it might invent them, to keep us all on our toes.) But Mill never said their place is in universities, or that it falls to universities to provide ‘safe spaces’ for those whose political identity is bound up with  ignorance and superstition.  A university must tolerate, and even welcome, those who follow evidence and argument to conclusions that are false or unpalatable; but it may reject those who seek a platform for hatred or deception.  That is why it counts counts against Middlebury College when it shouts down Charles Murray but it counts in favour of Berkeley when it excludes Milos Yannopoulos.

That means universities can never be comfortable for a certain kind of conservative.  Those who need the lecture hall to flatter their personal convictions are bound to feel lonely and misunderstood.  Those who think views in the college should mirror votes in the electoral college are bound to feel cheated.  Maybe they can take comfort in the welcoming company they can find in America’s churches, legislatures, and even its courts.  But they should expect only argument from its universities—not speaking with a single voice, but speaking in that irritating way that universities do: insisting on belief that is proportionate to evidence, and on standards of reasoning that are neither liberal nor conservative, but merely human.

How to make your gay students uncomfortable

Professor Louise Richardson, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, is quoted as giving the following awkward if well-intentioned defence of free speech on campus:

I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. (… ) And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable. If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.

In later qualification, Professor Richardson explained that she wasn’t talking about ‘many’ conversations here at Oxford.  I believe that.   I also believe Professor Richardson knows her legal obligations under the UK Equality Act to ensure the university is a comfortable place for its LGBT communities to do what we are all here to do: to teach, to research and to learn.  In any case, most of what needs to be said to remind her of that obligation, as well as her obligation to defend academic integrity from incompetence and quackery, has already been said.

Except, I think, for two points.

First, how does it come to be that any university teacher is expressing ‘views against homosexuality’ in a class?  I’m baffled. Maybe it was a seminar on human sexuality, moral philosophy, or human rights law.  But what if it was on quantum mechanics, modal logic, or numerical analysis? Maybe a university policy on sex discrimination or free speech was under discussion.  But what if it was merely that the rainbow flag was flying, and that gave the professor a homosexual panic attack? These distinctions matter.

I expect my gay law students to be willing as anyone to test the view that sexual orientation should be a prohibited ground of discrimination, or to be able to assess arguments about same-sex marriage. I do not expect them to have to put up with the casual homophobia of everyday life, with irrelevant or biased comments or examples, or with the stench created by some professor’s religious incontinence.

Second, where debate about homosexuality is relevant, it does not fall only on students to tackle false, ill-informed, or unsympathetic views on the part of teachers. And it certainly does not fall mainly on gay students to do so. It falls on all of us, starting with the Vice-Chancellor.

In my own fields, there are only two or three faculty whose homophobia intrudes in their work. Their disapproval of homosexuality is usually gracious, emollient, and even, in its twisted way, ‘reasoned’. I am less troubled by them than I am by pusillanimous  colleagues, tenured liberal faculty who regard such views as outrageous or pathetic, but who never dare put pen to paper, or even a hand in the air, to join in the argument and, in that properly academic way, help make their gay students more comfortable.

As Professor Richardson says, ‘If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them’.  But she should also have said, to her colleagues as well as to her students, ‘and this means you.’