From the Vice-Chancellor: Use your hard-won freedoms
05 May 2022
Last week, the University of Reading’s School of Law hosted a research seminar, with a visiting academic from the University of Melbourne. The academic spoke about research into the creation of contentious new laws in the UK and Australia. A number of academics and students turned up to listen and discuss the issues.
At a university, there is nothing unusual about that.
At the same time, several dozen people gathered outside in the sunshine, to peacefully protest against views they felt were discriminatory, offensive and wrong. The group was quiet – no doubt respectful of the many end-of-year exams going on around campus – but drew attention of passers-by with flags, signs and placards.
There is nothing particularly unusual about that, either.
Yet as a result of these events, the University has been accused of acting unlawfully, creating a hostile environment for trans and other colleagues, students and visitors, and failing to follow our own policies. Some of the complaints state that the University should not have allowed the academic seminar to take place, and that we failed in our duty of care to our students and staff, providing a platform for views that people found upsetting and offensive.
These are serious accusations. We are proud of providing a welcoming environment for all people. We respect the rights of our trans colleagues and students, and have a number of measures in place to support trans members of our community, including those who are transitioning while at the University.
The University also has a strong record on its defence of academic freedom, which is embedded in our Charter, and supporting freedom of speech. Fundamentally, we believe in the power of ideas to change the world. I am proud that we have consistently stood up to say: even if we dislike a person’s views, we believe in their right to explore ideas and to express them freely.
Good ideas that address complex issues are not handed down to us on stone tablets. Good ideas need time, space and the application of intelligence to be formed. Bad ideas, conversely, need to be shown up for what they are, through calmly expressed reason, honest discussion and debate.
The ability to discover and create knowledge is linked inextricably to an inclusive and tolerant approach. To be a truly creative space for great ideas, everyone must be able to access information and argument, and put forward their thoughts, whatever their background. We strive to be respectful of everyone’s views and provide space for those views to be expressed and debated, without discriminating on the basis of a person’s characteristics. We recognise that structural barriers still exist within society and on our own campuses, and we are working together to change these. Debate is a critical way that we do this.
First and foremost, we are a community made up of diverse individuals, for which I am very grateful. I have benefitted myself from Stonewall Ally training, and I am particularly conscious of the issues facing trans individuals, and the protections they deserve to receive from discrimination and prejudice.
As a result of the event last week, and the comments and complaints we received, I wanted to make sure that the University had not failed to stand up to these values on both sides – of academic freedom and of diversity and inclusivity. With this in mind, Professor Peter Miskell, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education & Student Experience, reviewed the circumstances and processes around this research seminar, to see if the University had properly followed its policies and ideals.
Having investigated the concerns raised, and reviewed the available information, Professor Miskell has concluded that the University did not act improperly and was not in breach of its rules. His review has been published on our website and you can read the full results of his investigation.
While I won’t go over the same points here, I do wish to be clear: we strive to be a safe space for people of all backgrounds, orientations and perspectives. But creating safe spaces cannot, and must not, be used for shutting down genuine academic debate.
I applaud efforts to be inclusive and stand up for the rights of all people, especially our students and colleagues on campus. We all have a right to live and work here free from discrimination or prejudice, safe from harm or harassment.
None of us, though, has a right to not be offended by somebody’s views. We have an obligation to respect and allow others to express views we disagree with, even those we find upsetting and hurtful. If you are offended by a speaker, don’t just surround yourself with people who agree with you – go to the talk or seminar and try to change some people’s minds through reasoned debate. Preventing discussion from happening isn’t just wrong, it’s also counter-productive to good ideas.
I can’t speak for every university in the country, but I reject the lazy characterisation of university campuses as breeding grounds for some kind of toxic ‘woke’ agenda. It is palpable nonsense, and actually just adds to unhelpful ‘them-versus-us’ polarisation. To safeguard academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus, we should all look to our own responsibility to strengthen the rights and freedoms we already have; and we should continue to stand up for those who most need our support.