Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Oxford’s Head of Equality & Diversity criticised over controversial post

Oxford dons have voiced their concerns over political diversity and free speech within the university following a post by Vernal Scott, the head of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit (EDU). 

Vernal Scott’s now-deleted post on X supported an attempt by Belgian police to shut down the National Conservative Conference held in Brussels last week. Scott wrote: “I applaud the mayor and police of Brussels for their decision to close down this conference”.

Belgian police stormed the conference under orders from Emir Kir, the Socialist Party mayor of the neighbourhood hosting NatCon. Kir defended his order as a means to ‘‘guarantee public safety’’ but added, “the far-right is not welcome” in his district.

Kir’s order to suppress the meeting was quickly deemed unlawful by both the Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo and the Conseil d’État, Belgium’s supreme administrative court. De Croo asserted, “Banning political meetings is unconstitutional. Full stop.”

Scott’s remarks seem to have struck a chord within the debate around free speech in higher education.

In a comment to The Telegraph, Professor Lawrence Goldman, an emeritus fellow at St Peter’s, criticised Vernal Scott for not understanding “the meaning of his job title”. 

“Vernal Scott’s comment sums up the problem of our universities, which have focused on increasing social diversity while allowing intellectual and political diversity to wither away,” he stated. 

The Telegraph also reported that Sir Noel Malcolm, a senior research fellow at All Souls, called the post “troubling” and contradicts what he calls “diversity of opinion”.

Vernal Scott’s actions come amid attempts by both the government and academics to preserve free speech and academic freedom as they see fit. 

In 2023, the government passed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act and appointed Arif Ahmed, a former philosophy professor at the University of Cambridge, as the first free speech tsar. Ahmed has repeatedly emphasised the supposed threat of equality and diversity legislation on free speech.

Last year, a group of academics joined forces to form the London Universities’ Council for Academic Freedom. The LUCAF defines academic freedom as that which ‘‘safeguards the pursuit of knowledge and truth, which is central to the mission of higher education” and “underpins the ability of scholars to deliver knowledge as a public good in a democracy”.

Toby Young, the director of the Free Speech Union, told The Telegraph that Scott should “read his employer’s own free speech policy, which is extremely good”.

In their policy statement, the University of Oxford labels free speech as the “lifeblood of a university”. They put forward the view that a university “should never prevent speech that is lawful”, which inevitably means “members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive”.

Whilst they accept “not all theories deserve equal respect”, the University argues that “within the bounds set by law, all voices or views which any member of our community considers relevant should be given the chance of a hearing”.

The University has isolated itself from Scott’s views.

“The University of Oxford has a robust freedom of speech policy that applies within the university context stating that all lawful voices or views should be given a hearing. These views were expressed by a member of staff but in their personal capacity about a non-university event and do not represent the views of the University,” said a spokesperson of the University.

Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Image Description: Radcliffe Camera