‘Professor Simon Goldhill, Director of CRASSH, comments on the protest at Lady Mitchell Hall:
Dozens of students and other members of the audience at Lady Mitchell have sent me e-mails and comments all expressing their disappointment and rage at the protest. The commonest term has been ‘ashamed’.
There are two reasons why I was disappointed with the form of the protest. I say the form of the protest because, like Naomi Wolf who spoke in Cambridge two weeks ago, I believe that protest is a democratic necessity, and like most who work in the University I have been appalled by the nature of the proposed government reforms of education. I would have been surprised if there had been no expression of the anger many feel. But I was equally annoyed by the way these few students elected to behave.
The first reason is that we lost an extraordinary opportunity. Mr Willetts agreed to do something very few politicians ever do: to face his critics for an hour of questions without any preconditions. We had some of his most articulate critics in the audience. This exceptional opportunity to change public opinion, whatever Mr Willetts’ response, was lost.
The second reason is that the protest, in the name of protecting the values of the university, destroyed the values of the university. You cannot defend the university as a place of rational debate, as the home of the free and critical exchange of ideas, by preventing people from listening to a talk they wish to hear, by refusing to listen to views you disagree with, and by shouting down any opposition. I don’t believe governments when they say torture or extrajudicial killings are necessary to protect democracy. I don’t believe you can stand up for what we most care about in university education by systematically abusing its privileges. You can’t shag for chastity.
The history of the twentieth century reveals again and again the disastrous consequences of this sort of behaviour. It starts with anger, often, as in this case, justified anger, but when it moves through absolute certainty, to violently excluding other voices, then the political consequences become lethal. I stood for a good while with the protesters earlier outside Lady Mitchell Hall, and heard speaker after speaker extol the opportunity for anyone to speak, to hear the marginal voices, and many passionate defences of educational principles with which I agree – and then sadly watched the violent destruction of such ideals in the protest’s strident, totalitarian yelling.’