It is time that Our University follows the footsteps of the leading UK Universities and appoints a defender of free speech.

Of all the people claiming to wage “a war on wokery”, Professor Eric Kaufmann has arguably gone the furthest – by setting up an academic faculty dedicated to the pursuit. Following a 20-year career at London’s Birkbeck University – of which he says the past five years involved multiple “Twitter mobbings” and investigations with “zero credibility” due to his views – its former head of politics last week announced the launch of the brand new Centre for Heterodox Social Science (CHSS), where freedom of expression won’t be “distorted by ideology”, as he believes is the now the case on campuses across the UK.

Based at the University of Buckingham, its first course, “Woke: the Origins, Dynamics and Implications of an Elite Ideology”, will launch as a 15-week online programme open to all in January, with a Master’s degree to follow in September. Access to the course materials will cost £80 (rising to £480 for students who want a 90-minute seminar with Prof Kaufmann), with topics to include the origins of liberalism, the rise of “cultural socialism” in the 1960s, and the “public opinion dynamics” driving groups that “support woke ideas”, such as “putting pressure on JK Rowling’s publisher to drop her”. The Master’s will focus on “the intersection between the woke left and the populist right”, to be charged at university-set rates of around £7,700 per year.

Prof Kaufmann believes the institute is the first of its kind in Britain. Over the past two decades, he has become concerned by the fact that “universities have become more monocultural”, where “views lean around 9:1, Left to Right, among academics, and the student body is around 6:1 Left to Right”. Of that group, there is a small yet “radical” cohort, he adds, “who are intolerant; they’re progressive illiberals – and they can make a lot of trouble. They can really damage the speech climate in a university, by exerting pressure on dissenters and also, to some extent, setting the tone, because others are afraid to stand up to their initiatives.” 

The end result of language policing, excessive focus on “microscopic harms” and a trend for “no-platforming (refusing someone an opportunity to talk about their beliefs publicly)”, is creating “a less resilient society”, Prof Kaufmann says, which is “inducing a kind of fragility and a kind of cultural victimhood, which is disempowering”.

Thus far, his course has received enquiries from people “all over the map… some who’ve got PhDs, some who are in university, some who just seem to be ordinary citizens”. It will appeal, he thinks, to “the curious member of the public who wants to understand this cultural revolution that is sweeping through Western societies”.

Prof Kaufmann says the CHSS is not about making Right-wing views dominant – he describes himself as a “liberal conservative” – but creating a more balanced environment, where “there isn’t the shame, or there isn’t the embarrassment involved in having the minority viewpoint”. These goals are likely to be echoed at the Peterson Academy, Jordan Peterson’s eponymous online learning platform to soft launch next month, which will feature “revolutionary” courses from professors at the likes of MIT, Stanford and Oxbridge.

At traditional institutions too, free speech is to take “centre stage”, Professor Irene Tracey, the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, told students last week. “I have been clear about our role in the university sector to protect free speech,” she told undergraduates in her opening oration of the academic year. “It is core to how we teach subjects and expose students to different views.”

Both Prof Tracey’s comments and the centre’s launch come at a febrile time for academic institutions, who are increasingly caught in the crosshairs over what can and can’t be said. According to the Office for Students (OfS; the universities’ watchdog), 260 events didn’t go ahead in 2022 due to restrictions over speakers, with a further 475 subject to some kind of mitigation. That data “may not provide the full picture”, the OfS added, as it “does not capture decisions not to invite speakers in the first place”.

Today, Professor Arif Ahmed shared his experiences as a philosophy professor at Cambridge University for the first time since he was appointed as the UK’s first-ever universities free speech tsar – a position created to enshrine the open exchange of ideas in law. (The Higher Education [Freedom of Speech] Act was introduced to the Commons in 2021, and received Royal Assent in May.) Prof Ahmed said he “often felt hesitant to raise certain points or to mention certain issues” at Cambridge. His new role will include imposing fines on universities who wrongly no-platform speakers, or discipline academics for views shared online, or enforce “ideological” anti-bias training for staff and students. 

The war on academic censorship has been ramping up on both sides of the Atlantic. Last month saw the introduction of the Campus Call for Free Expression, a pledge signed by 13 universities, including the Ivy League institution Cornell (whose theme for this academic year is “free expression”). Each institution is creating programmes accordingly: James Madison University in Virginia will hold free expression training ‘for every incoming first-year and transfer student’; at Rutgers in New Jersey, the president is to teach a course that includes “free expression, through the lens of public institutions”.

This fightback against restrictive campus culture is not only being broached at established universities, but giving way to new ones. In November 2021, the University of Austin (UATX) – dubbed “the most dangerous university in America”– was created, and will open its first fully accredited university course next year. It is committed “to the fearless pursuit of truth”, according to its provost, Jacob Howland, who points to a poll showing that self-censorship is now higher among faculty members ‘than during the McCarthy era’. This is “not a healthy environment”, Howland says, adding that while a number of universities appear openly to back free speech, “it’s fairly easy to make such statements. I would hope that those universities that are currently doing that will actually follow up and support academic freedom.”

UATX has run three programmes since it opened: two in the summer (including last year’s “Forbidden Courses” which covered issues such as feminism and the history of the black male experience), aimed at school students, and a year-long fellowship for graduates (Howland says around 10 per cent of applicants were accepted). All have attracted “high performing students, and they were very, very eager for open discussion, and very grateful for it,” Howland says. “They were really overjoyed to be with others like themselves… [some] frankly had never seen anything like it, and they were just kind of blown away. Like, ‘wow, I can say what I think here without fear’.”

Inevitably, there has been backlash. “It’s the University of Austin Against Everyone,” read a Politico headline after the announcement of UATX’s launch; within a week, Steven Pinker, the Harvard professor and author, and former University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer, resigned from its board (the latter citing statements made by UATX “that diverged very significantly from my own views”). Howland has been bemused by the outcry, he says. “We have 4,000 colleges and universities in this country; it’s odd that we have been targeted by people for being a different kind of school, because that suggests almost a totalising ambition, like all universities should be the same. If you want to go to a school that is explicitly Left wing, or explicitly Right wing, great. It’s a big country, do your thing. If you want to come to a school that says we’re not about that… come to us.”

Ezra Gershanok decided to do that last year. Having graduated from Penn State University and worked as a business analyst at McKinsey for two years, he was drawn in by some of the professors on UATX’s roster, and applied first for its summer programme, then its fellowship. The year-long course was similar to an MBA, says Gershanok, with three in-person weekends, and the rest of the learning done independently. He says that the conversations among his 30 classmates, from countries including China and Venezuela, fostered “an environment of people that appreciated liberty, because their parents or they grew up in environments without it. Honestly, my whole take on this ‘wokeness’ is people take for granted the political freedoms and the meritocracy that we have, because they’ve never seen a society in which you can’t ask questions.”

Gershanok had his own brush with campus hegemony at the London School of Economics, where he spent a year as part of his undergraduate degree. In a sociology class, on questioning why they were reading Karl Marx, Gershanok says he was met by silence from students too concerned to agree, before then being upbraided by the teaching assistant. “You make a comment that doesn’t go with the grain, and the professor wouldn’t allow it to sit,” he recalls. “In the classroom, I don’t think you can always have a real conversation.”

Prof Kaufmann thinks he’s the man to change that. The CHSS – for which merchandise has already been printed (he proudly shows off a branded cup) – is the “nucleus that can maybe be a jumping-off point for future growth, and therefore something brand new in the UK higher education ecosystem”. He is also confident of its global appeal, with the new institution yielding “a chance to be really quite a distinctive player transatlantically [too]”. The students who sign up will, presumably, be up for the challenge. Across British campuses, though, the gear shift he is hoping for might not be quite so close.

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