In the forthcoming University and College Union (UCU) National Executive Committee Elections 2021 there is one candidate who believes that defending academic freedom should be a major priority for UCU. She is Shereen Benjamin of the University of Edinburgh. Shereen is standing for a National HE seat and a National LGBT+ seat. Please vote for her and put the Number ‘1’ next to her name in both categories (single transferable vote). The postal ballot closes on Tuesday 2 March. Here is an extract from her election address:
Defending Academic Freedom – “The corporatisation of universities has seen assaults on academic freedom, as managers seek to placate rather than challenge student ‘consumers’. In times of precarity, it is more important than ever for UCU to safeguard freedom for academics to challenge received wisdom and express unpopular opinions. We are currently seeing threats to academic freedom in relation to issues such as Palestine solidarity and antisemitism, the Prevent agenda, sex and gender identity, and the ‘hostile environment’ for migrants. Academics are being no-platformed or are self-censoring, leading to conferences and talks being cancelled and research not being done. UCU’s established policy support for academic freedom requires actions as well as words: if elected, I will work to ensure that NEC provides leadership in standing up to University managements wherever protection for academic freedom is threatened”.
Only 4 other candidates mention their support for academic freedom in their election addresses:
Michael Carley (University of Bath – HE National and South): “UCU must protect academic freedom, the more general freedoms of speech and movement, and the rights of everyone, however they identify or are identified, to go about their daily lives in peace. This is neither negotiable nor conditional on agreeing with anyone’s views”.
Maria Chondrogianni (University of Westminster – HE National): “We need to strengthen local branches to defend members’ jobs and employment conditions, to defend the right of ownership of intellectual property and moral rights of any video recording, to defend academic freedom…”
Rohit K Dasgupta (Loughborough University – HE National): “I have been nationally involved in campaigns to support inclusive relationship and sex education, academic freedom on campuses and speaking against all forms of human rights abuse”.
Eurig Scandrett (Queen Margaret University – Scotland HE – UCU Scotland Honorary Secretary): “Commercialisation, casualisation, intensification and the rightward shift in politics has put academic freedom under severe threat”.
Another candidate, Marion Hersh (University of Glasgow – HE National) sees wider academic freedom as a pretext to undermine rights: “I promote academic freedom in teaching and research and oppose its misuse as a pretext to undermine the rights of minority groups, most recently trans people”. While Rhiannon Lockley (Birmingham City University -Midlands) expresses concerns about “…silencing critical (often Black) voices in education. It sits alongside the Tory push (building on Prevent) to stamp out critique in the classroom, which requires urgent action from UCU”. This is, at best, a partial defence of critical thinking that would not apply to voices critical of the ‘critics’.
Yet again, academic freedom is not a major issue for wannabe leaders in UCU. We know that many in the present leadership believe that arguing for free speech is a ‘neo-Fascist conspiracy’ and the General Secretary, Jo Grady, recently said on Twitter that “hatred packaged or expressed as ‘debate’ is violence”.
As UCU4AF (UCU for Academic Freedom) have pointed out, the group of candidates clustered around Grady who call thesmselves ‘UCU Commons’ explicitly adopt a ‘no debate’ policy in the their ‘values‘ statement: ‘We unequivocally support trans people, whose lives and rights are not up for debate.’
In this censorious culture, a candidate like Shereen will have a major fight ahead if she is elected. UCU members should give her a chance and show their support for free speech and academic freedom: ‘VOTE BENJAMIN!’ (twice).