The Hawking Vote: Abuse of Official Email Lists?

Once again, reports are emerging that senior members of the University administration and/or academic community have exploited university and/or college email lists to campaign for one side of Senate House vote. Complaints lodged with the University proctors have not resulted in any enquiry or action; instead, we are told that, because the votes are anonymous, senior colleagues cannot be said to be bullying, or anyway unduly influencing, their junior colleagues; and that junior members of staff should toughen up in the face of this pressure. So much I have been told.

These reports are worrying. It is true that Regent House votes are anonymous. But to argue that this licenses senior colleagues to bring pressure to bear on votes, with impunity, is wrong.

For of course a vote is not the only part of our important, internal democratic process. We also have policy statements, fly-sheets, and a healthy community of internal debate, in which we can engage our colleagues in discussion, and make arguments on either side for the importance of voting in a particular way. These discussions, and debates, are often very public, and we all count on other members of our community to preserve our shared intellectual liberties as we participate in them. Senior members of our community, who enjoy considerable prestige and power over appointments, administrative/teaching opportunities and burdens, leave arrangements, promotions, and funding, must be vigilant about how they use their voices. As ever, with power comes responsibility.

When a senior colleague uses an organ of university or college administration to disseminate information, a point of view, or indeed an instruction, she or he endows that communication with some degree of the university’s authority, and combines her or his power with the communication. At the very least, she or he muddies the waters between a personal and an official view (regardless of any statements made to the contrary). A junior colleague who speaks against this view or instruction is stepping out of line, or may fear that she or he is doing so.

Of course we should all respect the view of others, and be responsible for our own. We should all be so tough. But when careers and the means to live are on the line, or are seen to be on the line, who will speak out as they should? It’s not just the voting process that is at stake, but the free and fair circulation of reason.

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