By Sam Betley
On a recent edition of Nick Robinson’s Talking Politics podcast, NUS President and snowflake-in-chief Shakira Martin accused the Government of exaggerating the free speech crisis.
She claimed that it is being used to hide a multiplicity of other, more important, problems. Undoubtedly, Theresa May’s premiership has seen numerous scandals, mix-ups, and failures. But these are crystal clear for all to see. Frankly, the current government is not nearly competent enough to engineer something as overwhelming as the crisis of free speech in higher education. The recent outcry over Niall Ferguson’s conduct brings the reality of this crisis into sharper focus.
Niall Ferguson held a senior position at Stanford University’s Cardinal Conversations programme until recently. Many academics did not approve of his appointment. Why? Because he has the audacity to hold right-of-centre, conservative views on issues like individual liberty.
These views led him to assist Stanford students in setting up Cardinal Conversations as a vehicle for advancing free speech. When the programme invited Charles Murray, a controversial yet significant sociologist, to speak, the left began to mobilise. In scenes reminiscent of Momentum’s takeover of many local Labour groups, a handful of leftwing anti-free speech ideologues attempted to infiltrate the student committee that leads Cardinal Conversations.
So, when Dr. Ferguson made the mistake of suggesting “opposition research” on one such left-wing student, the academic establishment gleefully descended upon him like a pack of starving hyenas. Apparently, it doesn’t matter that no research was ever carried out. Fast-forward a couple of days, and Dr. Ferguson, sadly yet unsurprisingly, has been forced to resign from Cardinal Conversations.
Conservative students are significantly underrepresented at university
Dr. Ferguson has already apologised for the “juvenile, jocular tone” of the compromising emails, and admitted that he needs to grow up and leave student politics to the students. But by doing so, conservative students – a significant, and significantly underrepresented, minority across U.S. and U.K. universities – have lost a passionate advocate for free speech, which continues to be denigrated by the left.
Writing in The Sunday Times following the controversy, Dr. Ferguson backed up the anecdotal experience of many right-leaning students with hard evidence: a 2016 study of 40 leading U.S. academic institutions found that registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by a staggeringly high ratio of 33.5 to one.
This is astonishingly unrepresentative of mainstream opinion in a country where the Presidency, the Senate, and Congress are all controlled by the Republican Party. Similarly, research by the Adam Smith Institute in 2017 found that more than 80 percent of British academics were left-wing. Melanie Phillips paints an accurately bleak picture of the current situation, in which university lecturers who support Brexit or defend Israel are forced into silence just to protect their jobs.
Predictably, Niall Ferguson’s apology and resignation are being held up as a victory by those on both sides of the Atlantic who pretend that free speech is not under threat in higher education. But the picture that British Universities Minister Sam Gyimah paints of campuses infested with left-wing bias, “institutional hostility” to conservative views, and a rising “mono-culture” which only accepts certain views will be familiar to many students studying today. On a personal level, daily glances at my lecturers’ Twitter feeds provide more than enough evidence to substantiate Gyimah’s claims.
Free speech is a weapon that should be used with the greatest possible exposure
Furthermore, UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge withdrew from speaking at the Students’ Union of the University of Sussex because his talk on libertarianism and free speech was judged to be “medium to high risk” and he was asked to provide the Students’ Union with a copy of it in advance. Remarkably, this deeply illiberal attitude to political debate has even led to the no-platforming of the outspoken feminist Germaine Greer, the lesbian activist Julie Bindel, and the gay rights activist Peter Tatchell.
I have written before in Palatinate about the vital duty of universities to uphold free speech. Niall Ferguson was accused of weaponising free speech at Stanford. If that is a crime, then it is a noble one that should be committed more often, with the greatest possible publicity and exposure. Because free speech is indeed a weapon. A weapon that must be used to confront the ironic tendency of ‘progressives’ to shut their ears and minds to any ideas that do not correspond with their narrow view of the world.
Shakira Martin was wrong. The free speech crisis is real. But I fear that the left will use Niall Ferguson’s mistake to justify their ignorance of this situation. Universities must act to uphold free speech and foster the advancement of a broad spectrum of intellectual ideas.
Photograph: Newtown Grafitti via Flickr and Creative Commons