Oxford Chancellor criticises safe space “thought police”

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Oxford Chancellor Lord Chris Patten visited the Stubbs Society on Wednesday of 4th week to discuss the changing world, Brexit and “safe spaces”. The Oxford Student interviewed Patten after the event to push him on some of the key questions which had arisen in his talk.

The recent petition that has been brought against John Finnis to have him removed from teaching for his remarks on homosexuality has prompted discussion about the nature and limits of academic freedom. In his talk Patten expressed concerns about the culture of safe space in academic institutions, arguing that universities should be “bastions of liberalism” which includes the right to freedom of speech. Expanding on this notion, he recalled to The Oxford Student: “my moral tutor when I was here was a Marxist atheist who’d been a member of the communist party until the 1956 Hungarian uprising. He wrote a tribute to Joe Stalin, mass murderer, when Stalin died. He was actually a wonderful historian and a very nice man. Did he so invade my safe space as to affect my life, my culture, my sensitivities?

“All that it did was to make me realise that the world was rather bigger than my own views and prejudices, and that there’s a difference between having an argument and having a quarrel. I think that if you don’t learn that at a liberal institution and university then you’ve missed out on something extremely important in life. And provided things are within the law, I think that, as I said in my remarks, the answer to bad free speech is good free speech.”

Are there any limits to academic freedom? “Yes, and I think they’re proscribed in the law. I wouldn’t be very happy about employing or funding research for someone who was trying to prove that the holocaust was an invention.”

When it was put to him that some students may not feel free to go to classes taught by people who they perceive to be discriminatory against them, he told us: “when I was in Hong Kong just over a year ago, I was standing up for freedom for students who, in difficult circumstances, were arguing for the right to free speech. I think it’s bizarre to come back to a free society, where students aren’t under the same oppression as they are there, and find people arguing against free speech.

“I’m a passionate, old fashioned, small ‘l’ liberal, and I’m not going to give it up because of some thought police. I find some of the arguments extraordinary. I have mixed race grandchildren. I have never in my life voted against anything which would try to liberalise the law right back in the 70’s on homosexuality. And I think in many respects, the argument is taken, by some people, much too far.”

But how effective is free speech as a tool to challenge bigotry and racism? Here, Patten argued, Enoch Powell’s 1968 anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech provides a helpful case study. “Would I defend his right to make that speech in Wolverhampton? Yes, I think it was a disgraceful speech and it did his reputation huge damage and there were some very brave people at the time who stood out against him.

It was the same time that we were debating about whether to allow Asian refugees from East Africa to come into the country, and they were passionate about these issues. And the people who I admired were the people who stood up, against the bigotry, and wanted to argue those things.”

The conversation the turned to Brexit and how it might affect Oxford University. “The truth is that no one knows, including the government, what Brexit is going to actually means – were still in negotiations, which at the moment still seem to be intent on discovering that there are after all fairies at the bottom of the garden. So it’s difficult to know exactly what the impact will be on any sector of national life. Having said that, were trying to do what we can, in Oxford, to cover the more obvious eventualities, which is why we’re developing a very good relationship with Berlin and universities there.

We’re very concerned about what happens to European grants because we’re the biggest recipient of the most significant ERC grants in Europe, and above all, I think it’s a matter of the status of individuals, both postgraduates and undergraduates, and above all, teaching staff. I’m not quite sure how much attention the government has given this. But the research collaboration is such an important part of the role of a world class university. That is, I think, the issue about which we have to be most concerned.

I mean maybe at the end of the day, as bishops say, it’ll turn out ok, we’ll have some sort of scramble deal which will give us not as good an arrangement as we’ve got now, but not too bad an arrangement. On the other hand, the government still hasn’t ruled out crashing over the edge of the cliff at the end of March, so we just don’t know.”

The Norwegian government has recently advised its students to avoid going to university in the UK. Has Brexit already done irreparable damage to the reputation and status of British universities such as Oxford? “No I don’t think so. The only reputational damage may be the number of people who have been promoting Brexit were educated here. But, no I don’t think so, I think we’ll continue to provide a world class education and do world class research. But it would be easier to do it if the outcome of the Brexit negotiations was better than it appears to be at the moment.”

Image Credit: James Yuanxin Li


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