In the heartlands of white-flag academia

When I tried to find out why my pro-Brexit article was turned down I was rebuffed — showing the intellectual conformism of universities

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Readers of Standpoint will need little reminding of the pressures for intellectual conformism that now operate in our universities. David Butterfield’s article in the May edition, about the sudden cancellation of a visiting position that had been offered to Professor Jordan Peterson at Cambridge, gave a classic example of how it works. First, the university will invite a speaker or make an appointment, following its normal academic criteria; then student activists, and/or more senior agitators, will excavate some disreputable-seeming detail from that person’s past record, and launch their campaign; and then, very quickly, the university will capitulate.

Each time this happens, the impression one gets is of institutional pusillanimity: although the university would like to uphold academic standards, and of course wants to defend freedom of speech, those good intentions can quickly be crumpled up and folded away for the sake of a quiet life.

That may be the pattern in many cases. But what about the cases where the university does not surrender to pressure, but rather exerts the pressure itself? Where it has all the freedom it could wish for to promote the unhindered expression of ideas, but instead chooses not to? A few days before that article by David Butterfield was published, I wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge about one such case, which involved an article I had written about Brexit. The article itself, as I hastened to explain to him, was a very minor thing; but the point of principle which I wanted him to consider was, I thought—and still think—major.

The story began in January, when various bodies representing British universities, including the Russell Group, issued a public letter about the dangers of a “no deal” Brexit. In hugely exaggerated language, they announced that it would take “decades” for universities to recover from such an event. Rather dishonestly, they made no mention of the plan, already announced by the government, to rejoin the European research funding system as an “associated” country after Brexit. Most shockingly, they tried to stir up fears among European Union students in this country for their own purposes, saying that those students were “facing significant uncertainty about their futures”, even though their continued status here (including their right to pay only the fees of “home” students) had already been guaranteed.

I wrote an article criticising this and sent it to Briefings for Brexit, which is a pro-Brexit website run by two distinguished Cambridge academics, the historian Robert Tombs and the economist Graham Gudgin. When they published it, Professor Tombs also contacted the Cambridge University press office and suggested that they post it in the special section of the university website which they devote to articles about Brexit (the overwhelming majority of them, as you might guess, being negative treatments of that topic). On a previous occasion when he had sent them an article by me, they had declined on the grounds that, as they put it, I did not have “any current links to Cambridge”; so this time he pointed out that I am an Honorary Fellow of three Cambridge colleges. And in any case, he said, the matter was of direct relevance to Cambridge, as the alarmist public letter I was criticising had been issued by representatives of Cambridge—i.e. the Russell Group, which represents Cambridge among other universities.

The response he received was curious: a curt, unsigned message which just said that they had passed my article to their counterparts at Oxford, where I am a Fellow of a college. When he wrote back to protest at the inadequacy of this, he received an answer which was at least signed, by the “Head of News”, and which purported to reply to the points he had made. She wrote that only “current Cambridge researchers” could be published on their website; she declared that my article had to be excluded because it was an “opinion” piece, not a “fact based analysis”; and she concluded:

On a broader level, there does not appear to be an argument for Cambridge to balance a position it has taken, in that we do not appear to be a signatory to the “much-publicised letter sent to MPs by representatives of British universities, including our own” as you state. We are not included on the list of signatories. If you have additional information that can clarify this point, I would be very grateful if you could share it.

When I read this, I was not sure whether the slightly lip-curling tone of that final sentence was deliberate or not. But I felt quite sure that the second and third reasons given here were bogus. So I wrote to her myself to say so, very politely. I pointed out that my article was indeed “fact based”, and that far from excluding opinion pieces from the Brexit section of their website, they posted articles there which they themselves labelled as “Opinion”. (I quoted one example, an extraordinarily shallow piece urging Remainers not to accept the result of the referendum, which concluded: “To suggest that the UK is uniting around Brexit, then, is a danger to democracy itself. That danger comes from pressure on the losers to actually change their minds.”) As for her request for “additional information” to clarify the point that the open letter was signed by representatives of Cambridge, I replied:

I am happy to give you the information you seek. The Russell Group is a group of universities. The first sentence on its home page says: “The Russell Group represents 24 leading universities . . .” If you click on “Our Universities” in the menu on that page, you will find the list, which includes the University of Cambridge. What this means is that when the Russell Group issues a public letter, it does so on behalf of Cambridge and 23 other universities—representing them is its function and its raison d’être. So I do not understand how you can suggest that Cambridge is not involved here (unless Cambridge has publicly dissociated itself from the open letter—in which case, why does that not feature prominently on your website?). I would be very grateful, in turn, if you could clarify this point.

(I admit that my own lip was undergoing some contraction as I wrote this; it should not be necessary to explain what the Russell Group is to the “Head of News” at a Russell Group university.) And since the second and third reasons given by her were, I thought, patently bogus, I felt entitled to question the first one she had given: the claim that only “current Cambridge researchers” qualified, which differed from the “current links to Cambridge” criterion so clearly stated by her predecessor. I wrote:

I wonder whether there is some authoritative document, written prior to the submission of my article, which lays down an inviolable policy of rejecting the writings of any Fellow of a Cambridge College who is not a “current Cambridge researcher”—or is this for-mulation one that has been devised only on receipt of my article?

 

‘A university’s news office should not use tactics of stonewalling and outright falsification in an attempt to get rid of someone whose opinions it apparently does not share’

Since I had queried her comments on all three points, I awaited a response. But no response came. The first two tactics adopted by her and her colleagues had not been particularly powerful: the anonymous brush-off, and then the smoke-screen of bogus reasons. But the third tactic, sheer silence, was more effective, and it continued for more than a month. After five weeks I wrote again to her, requesting a response to the questions I had raised. There was then a reversion to tactic number one, an anonymous message from someone or other, combined with a new tactic, number four: ignoring my questions and just woodenly repeating the very things I was questioning. It said:

We only publish articles authored by current Cambridge researchers. We would also point out that Cambridge is not a signatory to the “much-publicised letter sent to MPs by representatives of British universities” as Prof. Tombs stated.

Amusingly, the message began with the phrase “To clarify what this office has already informed Prof. Tombs on this subject . . .” I wrote back, pointing out the difference between clarification and sheer repetition, and asking once more for an answer to the points I had raised. Having contacted the Russell Group, I was also able to forward a message from a senior official there, which confirmed that it had indeed been representing Cambridge. But this, together with two follow-up messages over several weeks, had no effect. Tactic number three—total silence—had been decisively re-applied.

As I’ve already said, the actual substance of the issue here, my article and its possible publication by Cambridge, was relatively unimportant. What mattered was a point of principle: that a university’s news office, which presents its public face to the world, should not use tactics of stonewalling and outright falsification in an attempt to get rid of someone whose opinions it apparently does not share. At no point had I claimed any essential right to publish on their website; if they had told me at the outset that the selection of material was a matter of pure discretion on their part, I would have had to accept that. But when they laid down one patently false criterion, suddenly tightened the definition of another one, and solemnly repeated an absurdity about Cambridge and the Russell Group, I could only conclude that these tactics were a rather desperate attempt to block an opinion they disliked. As I had written at the end of my message to the Head of News:

Almost every week I read something about “no-platforming”. Usually it is radical students who are keen on this; their fundamental mistake—and many senior academics have written eloquently about this, perhaps even on your website—is to assume that opinions with which they disagree are best dealt with by denying them opportunities to be heard.

And so, as even the anonymous monkeys had fallen silent, I turned to the organ-grinder: Paul Mylrea, the Director of the Communications Department, and thus the boss of those who had written to me so far. I sent him the entire string of e-mails, with a covering message which summarised the story, emphasising that “my main purpose in writing to you is to ask you to consider the procedures followed by your staff.” As I also pointed out, “a tactic of total silence is unpleasant when it is employed by any organisation, and above all when that organisation is responsible for ‘Communications’.” Mr Mylrea is a former Reuters journalist who, before coming to Cambridge, had been in charge of communications or media relations at Oxfam, Transport for London and the BBC; so I hoped that he at least would have a suitably responsible view of the role of a communications department, especially at a university, a place devoted to reasoned argument as well as the free flow of ideas. My hopes were not to be fulfilled.

After a week of stony silence from Mr Mylrea, I re-sent my message. The response which I then received from him had a somewhat snarling tone to it.

I am replying briefly as our office has been very clear in its previous replies . . . as we have stated, we were not a signatory to the “much-publicised letter sent to MPs by representatives of British universities” as Prof. Tombs stated. I am sorry if you do not like the replies you have received from our office, but the points we made are clear and I believe were answered [sic] fully in our previous correspondence.

Patiently, I explained in my reply that I had queried three specific points, and had not received an answer on any of them; indeed, the only reply I had received was just a wooden repetition of what I was querying. I rehearsed, yet again, the elementary facts about the Russell Group, which were now being brazenly ignored by the Director of Communications himself. I also added: “I am sorry to see that you make no comment on the point I raised about the tactic of silence which I encountered, and the discourtesy this involves.” I concluded:

You write that “I am sorry if you do not like the replies you have received from our office . . .”, as if to suggest that I sent messages repeating my questions merely because I did not “like” the replies I had received. This is not correct. I sent them because I had not received replies to the specific questions I had asked.

Once again I requested proper answers. But the only response I got was a “get lost” message, with a final affirmation of falsehood and a final snarl:

I repeat that I am sorry if you do not like the replies you have received from our office, but the points we made are clear and I believe we answered fully all the lengthy points you have made again. I do not intend to enter into further correspondence on this issue.

In the old days, Cambridge had a constitutional set-up in which the head of a department in the administration was accountable to representatives of the University. Those days seem to have passed; there is no “organogram”, and no system of accountability to stop such people from acting with corporate-style impunity. When I consulted the head of a Cambridge college, I was advised that the only thing to do was to write directly to the Vice-Chancellor. And so it was that, in mid-April, I once again composed a summary of events and sent it off, with the complete sequence of e-mails. I drew the Vice-Chancellor’s attention to the tactics of misrepresentation, mechanical repetition and, above all, sheer silence, which I thought were beneath the standards of any respectable university. And now, in mid-September, sheer silence is all that I have received from the Vice-Chancellor himself, after 21 weeks.

Can I absolutely prove that the systematic obstruction I encountered was caused by the fact that my article had appeared on a pro-Brexit website, and consisted of criticising something that was hysterically anti-Brexit? No. But when people who are well-informed resort to falsifying simple facts, and people employed to communicate resort to stubborn silence, there must be a strong reason. And as anyone who works in a British university will know, strong hostility to Brexit has been, ever since June 2016, an almost unquestioned public doctrine. Soon after the referendum, when the University of Oxford had placed on its own website a series of pieces by Oxford academics denouncing the result, I asked whether they might consider commissioning one piece to put the opposite point of view, given that this was a major public issue on which the whole country had divided almost 50:50. The response I received was that they did not think it would be right, since—and no, I am not making this up—that might expose them to an accusation of “creating false balance”.

 

‘When people who are well-informed resort to falsifying simple facts, and people employed to communicate resort to stubborn silence, there must be a strong reason’

Postscript: the editor of Standpoint invited Paul Mylrea to reply to the points made in this article. Mr Mylrea did not reply, but a response was sent by his deputy, James Hardy, as follows:

The University of Cambridge’s EU website is not an open publishing platform and nor is it intended as a forum for debate. It is primarily a place for practical Brexit information and guidance for current staff and students. It contains an “analysis” section where active researchers at the University can showcase work, analysis and media appearances that relate to both Brexit and their area of study. The exceptions are transcripts of lectures by two former senior civil servants invited to Cambridge to speak specifically on their experiences working on Brexit preparations for the benefit of the research community. We do not exercise political judgments in deciding on the content of the site and indeed the EU pages carry analysis reflecting different standpoints.

And so, yet again, the points I made are systematically ignored. My complaint to Mr Mylrea was not about being denied the right to publish on an “open publishing platform”. I was complaining about his department’s tactics of silence, delay, making obviously false statements, repeating the falsehoods when challenged, refusing to answer questions, and finally telling me that there was no need to reply because all my questions had been “fully” answered. As for Mr Hardy’s claim that they present only “analysis”: this term apparently covers crude opinion pieces, such as the one I mentioned (actually labelled “Opinion”) urging Remainers not to change their minds, as well as a tabloid-style article denouncing a no-deal Brexit in that well-known forum of academic analysis, the Metro free newspaper.