Freedom of speech is not enough

Professor Sir Keith Burnett, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield, comments on freedom of speech at universities.

Freedom of speech is not enough

By Professor Sir Keith Burnett, posted in the Times Higher comment section, 21 January 2016..

Over recent weeks the media has been fascinated with the subject of free speech on campus.

First the fear was that there was too much, that apologists for jihadist groups might use our universities to prey on the vulnerable. Vice-Chancellors were urged to take a stand. Then there were worries campus culture had gone too far - that revisionist historians and politically-correct lobbyists might try to purge universities of symbols of colonialism or restrict criticism of transgender identity. Once again, universities came in for criticism.

In fact, this has very little to do with the daily life of a university with 24,000 students and 7,000 staff. A place which is mainly focused on teaching and undertaking research, development of apprentices and training doctors for our local teaching hospitals.

I don't want to protect my students from learning anything. But the most important things they will learn are from their family and friends. We all know this to be one of the deep truths of life. And the most important impact in the world will be greater understanding of different points of view.

Professor SIR keith Burnett

However, headlines can sometimes create their own reality, and you may have begun to form an opinion on two of my particular duties as a Vice-Chancellor. The first is to be aware of the possibility of radicalisation, and the other to protect freedom of speech.

If you think either of these is easy, then this article is not for you. If you want to hear how I personally approach both of these thorny matters, read on.

So how should I perform these duties? How should I - a physicist by background and a teacher for decades - allow all to speak on the plethora of controversial issues, and yet be aware that some may lead to dangerous actions for my students.

I begin with people and, like all of us, I bring with me the insights of my own life. Now in my 60s, I remember other groups who urged violent action long before anyone had heard of ISIS. When I see radicalisation, I recall the sweet and generous face of one my school friends, later caught up in the Welsh nationalist terror acts of the 1980s. He was tried and found guilty, but the judge noted that he had been swept up by the persuasive call of far more guilty men.

It is not that I want to compare those actions with the truly awful acts of ISIS. I just want to explain that I have personally seen how a calm young man can be brought to commit unlawful and dangerous acts by listening to others. Anyone brought up in Belfast could tell similar stories. The danger is real and we work closely with colleagues in the home office and the police, as well as our own students and faith communities, to make our campus as good a place as we can.

Now when I think of what free speech means I am stirred by something else, a need to bring experience to the student community while preserving a family.

I have been involved in student life since my twenties, most closely as a Warden of one of the Imperial College residences in the 1980s. This was a good place to learn an important lesson, a lesson that parenting also drums in - that the way to listen and resolve differences is not always helped by a spotlight or a microphone.

All of us can be quick to take a stand, but talking without listening first doesn't build understanding or help a community. If one student comes and complains about another's actions or words, the first thing you ask is "have you talked to them about this?" "And if you did, were you nice and polite when you did it?" This is something that is difficult and sometimes dreaded, but is formidably effective in refining the real problems. In fact it is just the point President Obama emphasises in his recent address. Shouting at one another across the debating chamber, media or Twitter is not where to begin. The speech may be free, but the quality of the discussion cheap and the costs to a damaged community far too high.

But this is to focus on the negative. Isaiah Berlin saw free speech as having two aspects - the negative which focuses on sometimes necessary limitations, and the positive, what we need to say and sometimes to hear.

And this is what really matters in a place dedicated to education. Freedom to say only what we already believe is inadequate – not only because of its constraints, but because we cannot assume we have nothing to learn. Being outside conventional wisdom is no reason to block our ears – sometimes we need to listen and learn. And even if we reject an argument, we need to appreciate why it is held and challenge that respectfully.

Those who symbolise a stand for free speech include Socrates and Galileo. A university which could not give them a fair hearing would be a poor place of learning.

But what about the deeper need to hear and speak truths which unsettle us. Here politicians might take note from the students who don't make headlines. For the other lesson I have learned is not to underestimate their extraordinary powers to heal and go beyond simply allowing free speech.

In my own university, I have witnessed this most sharply in the solidarity between UK and international students, determined to celebrate what they learn from friends very different culturally from themselves, but in other ways so much the same. They made visual their positive stories through a series of shared 'selfies' and published them with a hashtag #StandByMe.

Yet they wanted to be heard beyond their own groups so they held events in parliament, including one memorable reception with an immigration minister where their leader took to a lectern and spoke powerfully about friendships, education and even love. It takes guts to speak sincerely of human connection in such a formal setting. A retired military commander in attendance looked at me in the eye and said he saw courage and leadership. That strength has taken my students into difficult places. After the killing of Lee Rigby and an increase in negative feelings towards Muslims, they rallied under a banner of 'Don't Let Hate Divide Us'.

And they are right to recognise a risk. We live in a time where a young woman in a hijab pushing a pram and with a toddler in tow can be terrified as she is followed through a park by hooligans taunting her as a jihadist, telling her that she must leave the country and threatening violence.

And there are Jewish mothers who take their children to primary schools where they employ security guards because parents are fearful of attacks on little boys who wear a kippah.

In an international university with students who come to us from over 100 countries, some of the learning is what it is like to see the world through others’ eyes or to understand a fear of violence against a community because of pure and evil prejudice.

This is a far deeper type of free speech and one which builds on trust. I honour our students for their generosity and dignity in doing so. I have seen for myself the true justification of the university shown in the friendship between a Jewish President of the Students’ Union and a Student from Gaza. I have seen environmental activists, arguing for disinvestment in fossil fuels, make a case with thoughtful dedication, winning understanding through sincere debate and persuasion rather than hectoring. We needed to hear them and we did.

If I have a campus in which such friendships and exchange happen, then I will do all I can to keep that possible.

What I really fear is those who do not care about my students and their lives together and want to use the campus as a platform for views that are lawful but not beneficial to my community. This includes those whose public addresses may be vicious or manipulative, but it also includes pundits who dismiss their sincere engagement with the great issues of their time simply because it makes easy political points.

I don't want to protect my students from learning anything. But the most important things they will learn are from their family and friends. We all know this to be one of the deep truths of life. And the most important impact in the world will be greater understanding of different points of view. This will happen at a university, as their idea of who can be in their family or circle of friends expands to cover the whole world.

A university is a place where diverse people live together. If they know a transgender person, and understand some their suffering and joy, that will be great. If they hear intolerant views of migrants but then are able to talk to a scholar from Syria, they will learn. If they share a Halal meal with a fellow student, who will be able persuade them that all Muslims are a threat?

I have no desire to stifle debate. I do work in a university after all. It often reminds me of the old Jewish joke in which two conflicting groups in a synagogue disagree about whether it is the correct tradition to stand or sit for prayers. To resolve the matter they agree to go together to see the oldest member of their community, now living in a residential home. Moishe, they ask, tell us, is it our tradition to stand during prayers? No, he answers. Half the group is jubilant - So you agree, it is our tradition to sit during prayers? No, he answers. The delegation is confused and protest: But then everyone will be arguing, stand up, sit down... The old man smiles. Ah, he says, that is our tradition.

I am all for free speech as part of how we learn. But it is nowhere near enough. St Paul wrote 'all things are lawful but not all are beneficial'. The greater prize is what builds the whole community.

And where is the line to be drawn between what is lawful and what is beneficial?

In the end, the responsibility on campus sits with me. And I may not always be right. Despite being a Vice-Chancellor, I am not yet claiming infallibility. But even if I am wrong, I am still charged with the sacred duty to preserve as I can our community of scholarship. And I will do so to the best of my ability.