Some years ago when I was Head of a university department I received a letter from the father of one of our students, complaining about one of my colleagues. The lecturer in question had, in the course of his lectures, allegedly told the class repeatedly that only socialism provided a satisfactory answer to society’s political, economic and cultural issues. My correspondent claimed that the lecturer had on several occasions urged his students to read books by Karl Marx (though these were not directly relevant to his course), and that on one occasion he had urged the class to vote for the Labour Party in a then imminent election. This, he suggested, was unacceptable conduct for a lecturer and an abuse of his position, and he demanded that I take action.
On investigating I found, as you might expect, that there was some disagreement about the facts, but the lecturer agreed that he had argued that socialism provided a satisfactory political frame of reference and had urged the students to read more about it; he said he had done this because most of them appeared to be largely ignorant of any political perspective other than a free-market capitalist one. He denied ever having urged anyone to vote Labour, but conceded he had mentioned that this is what he himself habitually did.
I should perhaps emphasise first of all that I do not accept, as is sometimes argued, that universities are full of left-leaning academics who indoctrinate their students. I suspect that the distribution of political opinions is much more balanced, and may even lean somewhat towards the centre-right position in politics. The question however is whether an expression in class of a political opinion by an academic – whatever that opinion may be – is acceptable. Needless to say, this is connected with questions of academic freedom, though it is more complex than that. Indoctrination – if there were such – cannot simply be justified in that way.
In the event, I did not find that my colleague had done anything that was clearly unacceptable, though he may have sailed close to the wind. On the whole, I would take the view that where a professor states his political perspective they will be able to alert students to their own potential bias and invite the statement of balancing views. But that may not be terribly relevant if your subject is organic chemistry. And what if the statement of political views takes the form of advocacy, or might to listeners appear to take that form? Is it acceptable for an academic to seek to persuade students of the merits of partisan political views? Or is it even acceptable to argue for a particular ideological position without reference to parties?
I am not sure what the answer to this is, even today. I am uneasy about political advocacy hiding behind academic freedom, but then again I would regret a higher education culture in which academics were constantly having to self-censor; students are mature people who should be able to handle political, philosophical, economic and social views. After all, should we have told Hayek or Hobsbawm that their views had no place in the academy? I don’t think so.