The campus free speech struggles, and litigation

Posted October 16, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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You may well not have heard of Mr Richard Spencer; at any rate I hadn’t, though I must admit I don’t think my life was the poorer for it. So, to introduce him to you, let me tell you that he is president of the National Policy Institute, an American white supremacist ‘think tank’. The reason why he is making an appearance in this blog post is because he has developed a habit of getting himself invited, or inviting himself, to universities to make speeches or take part in debates. His modus operandi appears to be that when these universities cancel his appearances, he sues them, claiming that his freedom of speech has been violated. Indeed he makes some money that way, as universities have been known to settle with him to escape his litigious attentions.

Let us not spend much time on Mr Spencer. This post has another dramatis persona, in the form of Mr Briscoe Cain. Mr Cain is a lawyer and a Republican member of the Texas House of Representatives. He is 32 years old, and I suspect he is on the look-out for higher things in the world of politics. He calls himself a conservative, and goodness knows what that actually means these days in the somewhat convoluted politics of the United States, but let’s say the label won’t please some students and others should he seek a university as a location for his oratory; which is what he has done.

Mr Cain appears to have been invited to address an audience at Texas Southern University (TSU). It is what is often referred to as a traditionally black university. Mr Cain was invited by a local chapter of the Federalist Society, an association that believes in the merits of ‘principles of limited government’, to deliver a speech on the campus of TSU. When the day came – and it was last week – a group of students from the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement objected to his rhetoric, on the somewhat complicated grounds that Mr Cain was known to oppose public funding of sex reassignment surgery. The university cancelled the event, claiming that his invitation had been irregular since the Federalist Society was not appropriately registered and recognised administratively by TSU.

So, Mr Cain is now proposing to sue TSU and its president and maybe some students. I suspect that the whole thing will become a topic of interest to radio talk show hosts and others wanting to work up a nice lather of indignation at this latest egregious violation of freedom of speech, maybe in between arguing the case for removing broadcasting licences from TV stations that are hostile to the current US administration. Let’s just say that Mr Cain won’t be deprived of support from various commentators.

But here is the problem. You and I might not be booking our seats to hear Mr Cain. But as far as I can tell, the good Texas Representative is not on the same level of unacceptability as Mr Spencer, for whom I would certainly be more than reluctant to provide any kind of platform. Briscoe Cain is just an attention-seeking conservative Republican, and while I might not like his outlook I strongly believe in a competitive political forum in which all legitimate views should be given a hearing. According to media reports, Mr Cain’s attempts to speak were drowned out by student chants of ‘you don’t get a platform here’.

Right now universities in the United States, and some in the United Kingdom, are being criticised for their failure to protect the right to free speech; and some students may sometimes appear to limit free speech to speeches that they agree with. This is something we must be vigilant about. Unpopular views must indeed sometimes receive special protection, so that we never slip into a society in which oppression becomes easier because we have all paved the way for it.

I have no particular affection for Briscoe Cain. But he should have been allowed to speak.


A wayside inn

Posted October 16, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: society

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If you were travelling in the early 18th century in the American colonies, on the Boston Post Road between Boston and Worcester, you would have been able to stop at the Wayside Inn, where you would have enjoyed good food and a bed for the night. You can still do so today, and indeed the dinner menu contains ‘traditional New England fare’ of an appetising nature. Of course the Wayside Inn may be old in America, but coaching inns were common in Britain and elsewhere in Europe long before the 18th century. One of the oldest surviving ones in England is the George in Southwark, London (formerly The George and Dragon) dating from 1543 and mentioned in one of Dickens’ novels. I don’t think its menu compares favourably with that of the Wayside Inn, but it is good to see the building still in its originally intended use.

Continental Europe has many examples of fine old traditional coaching inns. The Inn Klausenhof for example, near the university town of Göttingen in Germany, once welcomed Goethe and the Grimm brothers.

For many contemporary travellers, however, the wayside options are rather less attractive, at least in these parts. A league table of British motorway services was recently compiled by Transport Focus. Reading Services on the M4 came out on top, with nearby Heston Services recorded as the worst. I cannot provide readers with the menus, but I can tell you that Heston offers you Burger King, Costa and Greggs. If you think Reading Services must therefore by much much better, I’m not so sure. There is an additional El Mexicana, which I’ll guess is a Tex-Mex sort of thing, but overall it’s pretty much the same offering as Heston.

Even in today’s world of fast travellers, it doesn’t have to be like that. In Switzerland, what you might get at the Luzerner Raststätte can be seen here. There are similar rather more attractive roadside places all over continental Europe.

There is an apparent assumption in Britain that the average motorway driver likes deep-fried food and 1970s-era toilets; indeed they may put up with nothing else. And yet even here change is in the air. My favourite, in what is admittedly not a very crowded list, are the Tebay Services in Cumbria. Here you even have a farm shop, and restaurant food that is nutritious and attractive. We cannot yet find the Wayside Inn on the M6, but maybe things will get better.

The philosopher’s stone

Posted October 9, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: education, higher education

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Outside of the world of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter, little attention is probably paid these days to the philosopher’s stone, or indeed the study of alchemy from which it derived. Even if we don’t now want to focus on the ostensible chemical transformation suggested by the concept (of base metals into gold or silver), alchemy provided an interesting framework for the study of life, enlightenment and perfection. Studies of alchemy provided early insights into both science and philosophy, as well as what we might now regard as more doubtful journeys into the esoteric and the occult.

What is interesting about all this is that in earlier periods of history scholars often had a much greater desire to understand more of the totality of knowledge than many would aspire to today, or indeed would be encouraged to pursue. The philosopher-mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz for example, who also wrote learned works on physics, political science, law and theology in the 17th and 18th centuries, did not accept the constraints of single-subject expertise. He even developed some of the foundations of modern computing.

The challenges of interdisciplinarity have been the subject of attention in this blog before. But perhaps a starting point for us now might be to give more space to philosophical reflection in all areas of learning, to create a sense of understanding of how different areas of knowledge connect and how they can either underpin or endanger our sense of values. It is perhaps time to ensure that all people, at key stages of their educational formation, are exposed to the major strands of philosophy. In this way education can be what it needs to be, the alchemy that turns knowledge into wisdom.

Avoiding excessive student debt

Posted October 2, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education

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Last year in Ireland the Cassells Report (Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education) offered three options for funding higher education. The third of these (deferred payment of fees through income-contingent loans) was clearly seen as the best option, as it appeared to provide the most realistic proposal that might actually lead to more resources for universities and colleges; the other two options were nice in theory, but required the state to spend more on higher education, which it has not shown much inclination to do.

Now however the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar TD, has ruled out student loans as the way forward,  as he does not want a system that would leave students re-paying substantial debts. In my own opinion, the Taoiseach is right. I am not keen on the Australian/English model, and nor apparently is the British Prime Minister, much. The levels of debt that the English system is causing amongst young people is a real problem, as it has been in Australia, where massive sums remain unpaid.

I believe in fee contributions from those who can afford them, but not fees and loans for all. I doubt that the taxpayer in many countries, or possibly any country, can afford to fund the full cost of a high-quality university system, but the state must pay a substantial part of the cost (more than is the case now in these islands), and those who can afford it must make a contribution. In reality, that is there only way forward; and almost no politician will admit it.

Higher education leadership – for sharing?

Posted September 25, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: university

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Shared leadership has become a popular (if not always well understood) concept in recent times, and has been a topic of analysis within higher education. The academy was traditionally seen as a collegiate body in which a ceremonial primacy was granted to one of its own in return for collegiality in decision-making and governance. But that social contract came under stress some time ago, particularly as universities started to see themselves as business entities that needed to be competitive; and a whole new framework was constructed around that assessment, with corporate leadership at its pinnacle.

Of course every such trend produces a backlash, and in this case a tsunami of critiques crashed in rejecting the marketisation of higher education and the corporate practices thought to accompany it: dictatorial leadership, unresponsiveness to dissent, bad communication, over-valuation of managerial status and responsibility. And here is where, for some, the answer to all this is the idea of ‘shared leadership’, in which governance and decision-making is informed both by managerial judgement and an empowered wider body of people. This position has been developed in an interesting report sponsored by the American Council on Education (Shared Leadership in Higher Education: Important Lessons from Research and Practice, by Adrianna J. Kezar and Elizabeth M. Holcombe, University of Southern California) . The report suggests that organisations with shared leadership are ‘better able to learn, innovate, perform, and adapt to the types of external challenges that campuses now face.’ The key elements of such an approach are listed as ‘team empowerment, supportive vertical or hierarchical leaders, autonomy, shared purpose or goal, external coaching, accountability structures, interdependence, fairness of rewards, and shared cognition.’

Conceptually this isn’t easy. For those strongly dissenting from the strategic direction of an organisation, it is much more attractive to call for an ‘off-with-their-heads’ approach to unresponsive leaders, although such calls rarely lead to actual revolution and are more likely to result in truculent disengagement. For those at the top who have been persuaded that they are strong leaders, sharing their power with others can look like weakness. And then there is the lesson of Shakespeare’s King Lear, whose desire to share leadership with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia ends in tears.

Higher education has changed fundamentally since it ceased to be something that catered for the formation of social elites, and it cannot return to the forms of governance of that era. But shared leadership may offer a formula of success for the present age, dispensing with the idea of a ‘leader-follower binary’ and focusing instead on ‘how those in power can delegate authority, capitalize on expertise within the organization, and create appropriate infrastructure so that organizations can capitalize on the leadership of multiple people.’ This is a model universities and their leaders should consider much more seriously.

Philosopher King

Posted September 18, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: history, politics


It is, I think, not so fashionable these days to consider history in terms of monarchs and leaders. To many, kings and generals have hijacked the ‘story’ that really belongs to those whose lives were more of a struggle and who paid the price for royal vanity or incompetence. Then again, the popularity of novels or television programmes such as Wolf Hall might suggest that we still find it interesting to assess the past through the eyes of the powerful.

Friedrich der Große

For much of my youth I was in the presence of a copy of this rather famous painting of Frederick the Great, by the artist Anton Graff, painted in 1781 when the King was 69 years old, five years before he died.

It hung in our family home. My father was something of an admirer of the Prussian king. I probably never thought about it (or him) to any great extent at the time, except when I encountered some references to Frederick in history lessons. But a friend of mine who was a regular visitor to the house found the portrait disconcerting, and always claimed that Frederick eyed up the modern world with obvious disapproval and kept his gaze firmly on us as we did whatever we did back then.

So although I knew next to nothing about Frederick, he was a very definite presence in my youth. Then I left the parental home and, frankly, forgot all about him and Prussia and the times in which he lived. If I ever knew much about them in the first place. Recently someone gave me a book about Frederick, and I got interested.

As we sometimes wonder about the qualities (or lack of them) of our contemporary politicians, it is interesting to reflect on Friedrich der Große, King of Prussia from 1740 to 1786. In many ways one could describe him as the architect of the modern concept of the state. Although some will record him as a military leader who secured Prussia’s place as a growing European power, it is more interesting to note his establishment of a civil service, of his (relatively speaking) support for a free press, of his status as a patron of literature, music and art, of his championing of science and philosophy (his relationship with Voltaire in particular). In addition, he was a composer and performer of music – indeed a composer of music that is still played and recorded, his flute concertos being the most popular.

Sometimes we don’t really know what we want of our leaders. Sometimes we put up with leaders who manifestly will not give us what we need. The ‘enlightened absolutism’ offered in the 18th century by Der Alte Fritz really wouldn’t do today. But the enlightened intellectual engagement might. At least I would like to think so.

I now have the portrait that hung on my father’s wall. I don’t think I’ll take it down.

The mysteries of academic recruitment

Posted September 11, 2017 by universitydiary
Categories: higher education, university

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I have no idea on how many occasions I have set on university selection panels to fill academic or other vacancies, both in the various universities in which I have worked and in other institutions. Nor, to be honest, am I sure how often I personally got the decision right or wrong. And yet, these decisions change people’s lives and the destiny of institutions.

There are two key elements in staff recruitment. The first relates to the job specification – i.e. the particulars that are published describing the post and the attributes of the ideal candidate. The second is the selection process, including shortlisting and interviews. Both of these are critical: they contain a vision of the institution and of people who can help it to thrive, but that vision may be faulty, may be affected or undermined by bias or prejudice, and may be applied without proper expertise by those making the selection.

Mostly those taking part in faculty and staff recruitment do so with great care and with a real intention to be objective and fair. But that may not always be enough. Research in the United States has looked at some common criteria used in recruitment and assessed whether they are as helpful as people often believe; and has suggested that at least the early stages of selection (like shortlisting) might be conducted ‘blind’ – i.e. without knowledge of the candidate’s’ names, background and previous educational or institutional affiliations.

For those (like me, as I must admit) who have not tried this approach it may be worth a go. Selection for a university (or any other) job will never be a perfect process in all circumstances, but it should be as fair, transparent and objective as possible.