Author Archives: donspeakingout

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.

Terms of the Hawking Professorship: a worrying threat to academic independence and equal pay


The ballot on the Stephen W. Hawking Professorship of Cosmology closes on Monday 24 February at 5 pm. Anyone who has a vote should use it. These plans will define the nature of donations to the University for generations to come, and they set two dangerous precedents. Firstly, in establishing a post-tenure review procedure, they pave the way for a wider use of such reviews, whether for professors or for all academic staff. Secondly, in pitching the salary of a post outside existing pay scales, they threaten to undermine the University-wide pay structure, which offers a modicum of fairness in a world increasingly governed by the logic of divide and rule.

The terms of the donation have been written into a deed that guarantees an outsized payment for the chair-holder—whilst ensuring that the University nonetheless pays a substantial part of her/his salary. After lengthy discussions, and taking advice from external lawyers, a divided Council acknowledged that pay-equality issues would be raised were the bonus payment to be channeled through the University. But such issues are supposedly circumvented by paying the top-up directly to the incumbent—which is what is now proposed. We are assured that the Trustees will take account of conventions for pay within the University, but that promise has absolutely no legal teeth.

The performance of the chair-holder will be reviewed after 7  and 12 years in post, when it can be extended to a maximum of 17 years. There are no other positions in the University with an equivalent requirement, excluding the Royal Society Research Professorships, where tenure is determined by an external institution. As well as making the position less desirable in itself, and threatening existing tenure arrangements, the time-limited nature of the Chair may create funding problems. Paying the ‘former’ Hawking Professors will strip the department of money that could be spent on new hires.

If we agree to the proposed arrangements for the Chair, the University’s donors will in future be free to ignore existing employment practices and to impose their own arrangements as a condition of their gifts. This is clearly unacceptable. So too is the threat to tenure, which will contribute to a climate in which academic staff are reluctant to undertake independent research and to express independent views for fear of reprisals. Hence the importance of a no vote in the current ballot.

Prof. Simon Goldhill condemns student protests

‘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.’

Jeremy Prynne, ‘The Parade of Liberal Alarm’

Dear Goldhill,

I too have read attentively your response to the student protest at the visit of David Willetts and the subsequent occupation of the Lady Mitchell Hall. I too find the current parade of liberal alarm at the denial to Willetts of yet another platform for his dogmatic policy views to be self-righteous and disingenuous. You will remember that when you announced the project for a new series of seminars on ‘The Idea of a University’ I wrote to you expressing surprise and dismay that you had not invited any students to take part in the planning or to formally present their own arguments. The opportunity merely to ask questions of an authorised speaker is of course far different from an invitation to set out a prepared discourse, and not to acknowledge the student role in any idea of a university is pretty clearly to imply their merely marginal role: as if students could maybe raise issues but couldn’t be expected to make a fully coherent argument in extended format, that would be worth careful attention. Your list of invited speakers was also top-heavy with the great & the good, implying this conferred sanction of position and a priviledged right to be heard. And so this was not at all to be open and free speech, but an imitation of those qualities under cover of authoritarian prescription and central dogma. David Willetts is the epitome of this false notion of free speech. Not only as a senior politician is he whipped into conformity with central policy and under extreme pressure to toe the party line; he is principally the architect of these destructive policies, and there is no evidence whatever that he constructively listens to alternative views; indeed, he drives like a two-brained steamroller in order to crush dissent. So much is generally known and understood, not least by active-minded students, mindful that the next generation of their successors will be blighted by fearsome mounds of debt, keeping out many potential students and keeping under close managerial control (regulated by bankers, the conscience of our new society) the long-term careers of those students who can afford to come here. And therefore it is completely clear to me that ‘free speech’ is a false icon under the aegis of which to defend the invitation of Willetts to speak here. The defense of the value of open debate and free speech was undertaken not by unthinking neoliberal bystanders but by the protesting students; they are the ones who remind us that mendacious tokens of freedom were ever on offer by astute totalitarian rulers. The managers of our once-noble university have sold out their own right and duty of free speech, by unaccountable surrender to this party line, that will drive dissent into tacit surrender while accepting the whole crudely market-view of what universities are to become. It was an exercise of utmost cynicism to invite Willetts here, again, and then to brandish the trouble inevitably thus caused as offensive against free speech. I can only regard this as a crudely provocative set-up, blandly disguised as a fair and equal sharing of opposite views. Yes, maybe the actual tactics of the students will make squeamish liberal-minded academics wince; but far more ignominious is the silence and non-resistance of our university leaders in the face of political manipulation exercised against our collective best interests. I send you this letter in open form because I think it is important that these issues be widely ventilated, and because they are urgent at the present time. With regards : Jeremy Prynne

Cambridge Dons Support Student Protests

Academics’ Statement of Support

We, the undersigned, scholars and teachers in the University of Cambridge, support the students who are occupying Lady Mitchell Hall.

Our senior administrators have failed to resist the current assault upon British universities. Many of our students, however, have bravely opposed it. They have exercised that ‘leadership’ otherwise absent from the University. Given the destructive policies of the present government, enacted without due consultation, we believe that the disruption of the Minister for Universities’ address and the subsequent occupation are proportionate and justified actions.

We call upon the University administration not to coerce, menace or otherwise persecute the students taking part in this protest.

Anne Alexander, CRASSH
Mete Atature, Department of Physics
Hugues Azérad, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
Debbie Banham, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic
Tarak Barkawi, Department of Politics and International Studies
Bruce Beckles, University Computing Service
Deborah Bowman, Faculty of English
Nazim Bouatta, Department of Applied Mathematics and Physics
Christopher Burlinson, Faculty of English
Tim Button, Faculty of Philosophy
Jeremy Butterfield, Trinity College
Sarah Cain, Faculty of English
David Clifford, Faculty of English
Ben Etherington, Faculty of English
Lorna Finlayson, Faculty of Philosophy
Alex Flynn, Department of Social Anthropology
Christophe Gagne, Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages
Sinéad Garrigan-Mattar, Faculty of English
Raymond Geuss, Faculty of Philosophy
Priyamvada Gopal, Faculty of English
Joachen Guck, Department of Physics
Jeremy Hardingham, Faculty of English
David Hillman, Faculty of English
Ed Holberton, Faculty of English
Sarah Houghton-Walker, Faculty of English
Michael Hrebeniak, Faculty of English
Simon Jarvis, Faculty of English
Cindi Catz, Centre for Gender Studies
John Kinsella, Faculty of English
Mary Laven, Faculty of History
Mel Leggatt, Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
Jeff Miley, Department of Social Sciences
Clement Mouhot, Faculty of Mathematics
Subha Mukherji, Faculty of English
Kamal Munir, Judge Business School
George Oppitz-Trotman, Faculty of English
Ian Patterson, Faculty of English
Jeremy Prynne, Faculty of English
Bella Radenovich, Department of History of Art and Architecture
John Regan, Wolfson College
James Riley, Faculty of English
Josh Robinson, Faculty of English
Mark de Rond, Judge Business School
Corinna Russell, Faculty of English
Jason Scott-Warren, Faculty of English
Adam Stewart-Wallace, Faculty of Philosophy
Isobel Urquhart, Homerton College
Bert Vaux, Department of Linguistics/Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages
Chris Warnes, Faculty of English
Ruth Watson, Faculty of History
Daniel Wilson, History and Philosophy of Science
Andrew Zurcher, Faculty of English

George Oppitz-Trotman, ‘Open letter concerning the Willetts Protest at Cambridge’

Dear Professor Goldhill,

I recently read your response to the occupation of Lady Mitchell Hall by the Cambridge Defend Education group, posted on the CRASSH website. In it, you mention that many people have since emailed you expressing their sense of shame that David Willetts was prevented from speaking; I have taken that as an invitation to email you with a different view.

I feel compelled to do so partly because your response represents an exercise of symbolic capital that – in the context of the campaign against current government policy – seems to me a thousand-fold more irresponsible than the students’ actions last week. Your comments demand that space be made for ‘other voices’, and I trust that you believe you are intervening on their behalf by condemning the protests. Implicit in that rationale must be your awareness that your voice is invested with a certain authority dependent partly, but of course not wholly, on your esteemed position within the University. You will not be insensitive to the irony I’m getting at: your defence of others’ voices demands all views be treated equally, but that very defence is predicated on the knowledge that some voices are more equal than others.

Students and colleagues will read your statement of condemnation not as an expression of fair-minded concern but as a work that defines what is politically acceptable for them within the institution you represent. As a junior researcher, I am more than aware that a degree of career risk attends direct criticism here – in fact it is precisely that sense of ill-defined discomfort which prompts me to write. You will excuse me if – as a consequence of this discomfort – I feel that the term ‘totalitarian’ was misapplied by your statement.

The pretence that there exists a public sphere in which heterodox voices can commingle productively also underpins the criticism of CDE itself. I find it bizarre that so many rational people believe that Willetts’ visit represented a chance for rational debate. His relations with the HE sector are in tatters, and his visit to Cambridge represents part of an attempt to conceal that fact. It was an advertisement – not an evaluative process. CRASSH seems to consider his talk on par with a speech made by a visiting academic holding controversial views. But Willetts was not there to announce that he had found previously undiscovered Homeric material in Shakespeare, or to discuss the pitfalls of game theory. He was there to make a vicious policy respectable. I would have been far more disturbed by the protests had the interrupted speaker been a Holocaust denier: because the Holocaust denier’s illegitimacy is already manifest by social consensus. Willetts is in power, not on the fringes. He holds out hope that his systematic destruction of the public university can be made to seem democratic and virtuous.

I want to suggest to you therefore that allowing him to speak would – in itself – have been a political act. We might have engaged him in rational debate for hour upon hour, but in this case doing so would have meant participating in a social event designed to stymie those very principles we would be so reasonably advocating.

After a decade in which politicians have invested so much capital in seeming to listen, engage in dialogue, consult and engage, it seems totally irresponsible not to recognize that giving them the opportunity to do so is to confront them on their terms. Any such engagement would be a priori ineffective. Do we want our protests to be effective? Or do we want to fill in petitions provided by government websites, write mild emails to managers, and generally shuffle around in the way our opponents assumed we would? Let us not go on tip-toes.

Nobody could accuse the CDE protesters of doing that – which in itself should give some of us pause for thought. I agree that the protest was disappointing in some ways; there were certainly things that might have been done differently. But let us not be condescending about those with the vigour to dramatize their opposition in a way which we – collectively as academics in Cambridge – have singularly failed to do. All these phrases of which moderate critics of CDE are so fond- ‘free speech’, ‘rational debate’, et cetera – can only be made to mean what we want them to mean when we understand them not as pure categories, but as contested, compromised, imperfect, and messy.

The protesting students’ actions were not the product of flawed and naive idealism. On the contrary, the protest seemed a wholly realistic and rational response to the nature of the event. Its critics, on the other hand, who are so glad to talk about practical considerations and realism about long-term prospects, are the real idealists. Their idealism manifests itself as a valorisation of free speech that is entirely abstract but at the same time totally unprincipled.

Yours sincerely,

Dr George Oppitz-Trotman

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