Andrew Zurcher, ‘Open letter concerning the disruption to David Willetts’ speech’

Dear Simon Goldhill,

I have read your books. I have learned a lot from them, and I admire you.
You are an educated man.

When David Willetts came to Cambridge to speak on a CRASSH platform last
week, he came not to listen, but to give the appearance of listening.
David Willets is a politician, not an academic. He has shown contempt for
the free exchange of ideas by developing and pushing through a higher
educational policy that subordinates free speech to market forces. But you
defend his own right to free speech, and you are an educated man.

The CRASSH series on the idea of the university has recruited from among
the professorial clique a predictable range of voices: men and women fully
franchised, who face in the government’s attack on our universities
nothing more than an insult to their ideals. They face no decades of debt.
They face no diminishing prospects. They face neither threat of redundancy
nor unemployment. Indeed, they embrace the opportunity to sally fully
plated into the lists of ideological opposition: economic security and the
moral highground all at once. But you defend the CRASSH series as a free
and frank exchange of a range of viewpoints, and you are an educated man.

I have heard it said that the CDE action last week denied many
participants in the afternoon’s lecture the chance to make their own
voices heard. This was an unfortunate cost of the action, but it’s worth
asking who would have heard these voices. The professors at CRASSH? Our
university administration? David Willetts? It’s true that challenging
questions might have been asked by thoughtful, concerned members of our
community. These people are my friends and colleagues, my students. I care
about their right to be heard, as if it were my own. Who would have heard
them? None but themselves. Speaking in a sound-proofed closet, to an
audience of sock-puppets, is no kind of free speech. But you defend it,
and you are an educated man.

You have called CDE’s action against Willetts a self-defeating action, a
shagging for chastity. You have said that CDE has mistakenly attacked the
core values of the university. Perhaps you have undermined them, by
inviting a politician to whitewash his ideologically driven rape of the
university sector, in a speech that would rhetorically redescribe it as
consensual sex. I am grateful to CDE for refusing a podium to this
apologist for the market prostitution of academic research. Last week,
your colleague and fellow classicist at Royal Holloway, Edith Hall,
resigned from her chair, citing ‘the intense stresses of a professional
environment in which the senior management do not in [her] view uphold the
values definitive of a university’. Whose side are you really on? But you
claim to defend the university, and you are an educated man.

The CDE protest text was a shambles. Their instruments were blunt. The
group’s members are of many minds. But these are principled, desperate
young people facing a university that will not hear them, a society in
freefall, a market currently captained by pirates, and an environment
steadily succumbing to degradation, spoliation, and greed. I can forgive
these students a lot. But I find I do not need to forgive them. I do not
need to forgive them for their honesty, their integrity, their unabashed
if clumsy righteousness. They are simply Cambridge, defending the
opportunity to pursue free enquiry, defending the opportunity to think and
to learn, defending education. And you are an educated man.

Andrew Zurcher
Queens’ College


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