Heroes and Zeros

This is AFAF’s assessment of who we think are academic freedom’s ‘heroes’ and ‘zeros’ this month.

November 2019

The Hero of the month has to be Maya Nerissa Thomas, an undergraduate student reading history at the University of Oxford, who set up the Oxford Society for Free Discourse. She was interviewed about her views in The Oxford Student. Maya joins a growing list of students such as Peter Anson, the founder of Liberate the Debate, who are setting up free speech societies to counter the chilling of free speech on campus.

The Zero of the Month is Oxford Brookes University which cancelled a talk by feminist artist Rachel Ara after a complaint by students denouncing her as a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF). Ara appears on The Banned List but Brookes gets a special mention here for the bureaucratic way it avoided the charge of censorship according to the Oxford Mail: “The university has taken the decision to postpone a lecture as it had not been booked through the usual process for confirming external speakers. Postponement will allow appropriate time to ensure this process takes place”. Such manoeuvres exemplify how universities engage in institutional denial of the climate of censorship on campus.

October 2019

Hero number one is Professor Elizabeth Kiss, an American philosopher and former Rhodes scholar, who became warden of Rhodes House, Oxford in August 2019. She is responsible for Rhodes scholarships but, according to The Times, Professor Kiss refused to change the scheme name in response to student demands. She said: “If we change the name what do we gain? The legacy is still there. You are just running away from it. All of us, not just Rhodes scholars, are products and beneficiaries of very morally complex legacies. In bearing the name Rhodes scholars are challenged continually to confront that and engage with it”.

The second Hero is sociologist Dr Stuart Waiton, a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at Abertay University, Dundee. Dr Waiton argued on Sky News, that the revulsion about Nazi salutes at a football match had turned into a moral panic. His university ‘distanced’ itself from his comments and he was vilified on social media as a racist, a fascist and a white supremacist. Dr Waiton did not capitulate to threats and abuse but continued to explain his position in the press.  

Zero number one is the Oxford University Student Union which voted to ‘mandate the encouragement of silent clapping’ of ‘jazz hands’ at union events to avoid ‘triggering’ vulnerable students.  Writing in the Daily Mail, Emeritus Professor Frank Furedi, a distinguished sociologist, warned: ‘Some might dismiss ‘jazz hands’ as nothing more than the kind of frivolous, attention-seeking behaviour to which student unions have always resorted. But the situation is far worse. The Oxford policy is important because it symbolises our culture’s slide into infantalised decadence, where enfeeblement is celebrated and learned helplessness indulged’. Furedi argued that academic freedom will be undermined if people continue to see students as potential victims in need of safeguarding rather than as resilient adults.

The second Zero is Sheffield Students’ Union which banned white students from attending focus groups on ‘How we can create an anti-racist Students’ Union’. This act of censorship was said to be a move from being ‘non-racist to actively anti-racist’ but was widely condemned as being itself an example of racism and an attack on the academic freedom of undergraduates.  

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