Arise Sir Ed, saviour of King’s College London

An online ‘clap for Sir Ed’ will no doubt be forthcoming for an award justly earned

Artillery Row

Staff and students at King’s College London can feel very proud. Principal Ed Byrne has been knighted for his services to global academe, and for elevating this once archaic institution into a model of social justice, equality and diversity.

Under Sir Ed’s leadership the College is fully committed to progressive causes. In May, following the killing of George Floyd over three thousand miles away during a police arrest, Sir Ed swiftly denounced racism and all forms of discriminatory behaviour. Staff and students were encouraged to educate themselves, aided by online BLM learning resources, about the toxic legacies of colonialism and slavery. According to one King’s statement, “the pervasive and harmful effects of structural racism” are everywhere in evidence, except of course in the honours system. After all, some of the most renowned abolitionists were knights of the realm, like Sir Thomas Guy and Sir Robert Clayton, two justly celebrated members of our King’s community.

Increasing representation from woke privately-educated students is one of KCL’s greatest achievements

Leading the way from complacency to a heightened consciousness of race, Sir Ed noted: “As a leading higher education institution we must continue to fight ignorance and intolerance to strengthen our approach to equality, diversity and inclusion to further embrace the true power that diversity represents”. The “true power that diversity represents” is embodied in King’s’ commitment to expanding opportunities for students from deprived working-class backgrounds. Between 2018 and 2019, an impressive 3.7 per cent of King’s students were from disadvantaged communities, representing a minor deviation of about 60 per cent from the Higher Education Statistical Agency’s benchmark recommendation of 8.4 per cent.

The declining incidence of C1, C2 and D provincial working-class types from Fleetwood, Scunthorpe, and all places “oop north” on campus is, however, more than offset by the admirably diverse rates of admission from traditionally underprivileged minorities in the A and B social classification grades. Increasing representation from woke, conformist upper and middle class privately-educated students is one of the College’s greatest achievements. A visitor to any King’s canteen would be amazed by the rich diversity of accents heard in the queue. Almost every region in the south is represented: Eton, Harrow, Westminster, St Paul’s.

Likewise, under Sir Ed’s helmsmanship King’s is devoted to strengthening its international linkages, which in the words of the College’s Vision 2029 statement, is dedicated to “making the world a better place”. This is no cliché. It is a vision underpinned by a commitment to decolonise the curriculum, and other diversity initiatives such as the updated guidance on countering “Sinophobia”, especially in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The College’s policy is clear: “Since January 2020, there has been a significant national increase in incidents of racially-motivated hate towards Chinese, East-Asian, and South-East Asian people”. This has not been the case at King’s (needless to say), but it still necessitates the effort to “build inclusive spaces and prevent incidents of racism, including microaggressions and indirect discrimination”.

Anyone “who experiences or witnesses racist, xenophobic abuse” should report it, whether it occurs either inside or outside the College. Denying a platform to Sinophobic attitudes, ranging from accusations of prison labour conditions in Chinese factories or that the communist state has turned Xinjiang province into a giant concentration camp for the Uighur Muslim people, allegations of organ harvesting and the suppression of all forms of political dissent, to expressions of solidarity with Hong Kong freedom demonstrators, independence for Taiwan and Tibet, remains a vital task in preserving harmonious and inclusive relations with China and its high fee-paying students.

That’s what freedom is speech is all about: nurturing a correct mind-set of metropolitan norms

Indubitably, Sir Ed’s most notable achievement has been his unswerving defence of freedom of speech. During his diverse and inclusive tenure as Principal, the College now licenses a wide range of expression on all manner of viewpoints. Anyone who wishes to espouse on topics such as why Britain needs to stay in European Union, a no-deal catastrophe, the necessity for gender neutral toilets, radical identity politics, the racist and colonialist legacies of British history (again minus the obviously meritocratic honours system), lockdownphilia, and climate change alarmism, has absolutely free rein to express themselves no matter how divisive, one-sided, mendacious, and out-of-touch they may be. The College hosts numerous events on these very topics. That’s what freedom is speech is all about: nurturing a correct mind-set of metropolitan norms and stances. This is how knowledge and understanding progresses.

Of course, under Sir Ed’s tutelage King’s has to balance its fundamental commitment to free speech with its responsibilities to maintain a safe, diverse and inclusive environment for everyone in its community. For this reason, hate-speech and prejudicial viewpoints have no place. Brexit supporters, climate change deniers, conservatives, sceptical scientists, those with Paleo-Jurassic beliefs in outmoded institutions like the traditional family, and other similarly abnormal attitudes should be decried, and these extremist opinions should be informed upon so that disciplinary investigations can be enacted.

As a provider of “world class teaching and cutting-edge research”, King’s is dedicated, in Sir Ed’s words, to “creating an inclusive environment where all individuals are valued and able to succeed”. This commitment to educational excellence and the quality of the student experience is reflected in the annual National Students Survey scores this year, in which King’s outpaced all other universities in the Russell Group. Its performance in this domain has been truly remarkable (controlling for variables such as how one defines “performance” and “remarkable”).

All of this world-beating scholarly excellence has been achieved on a shoestring

All of this world-beating scholarly excellence, it must be remembered, has been achieved on a shoestring. Sir Ed’s annual salary stands at £350,000, along with necessary incidental expenditures, which was announced in 2018 by the student newspaper to consist of a mere £14,155, including expenses for “working breakfasts”, “working lunches”, iTunes, coffee machines and cork mats. Modest travel expenses included £6,443 for an undefined trip to China. “Presumably,” the newspaper helpfully speculated, “he was there to pick up his ‘Honorary Professorship’ at Tsinghua University”.

When vice-chancellors’ pay came under the government spotlight in 2017 Sir Ed was upfront about his relatively modest remuneration, commenting to the Financial Times that: “the government could more fruitfully concentrate on how we are going to attract EU workers after Brexit, so vital for our health services, than query what I earn”. That’s right, you tell ‘em, Sir Ed. Brexit is a terrible idea, and you’re great value for money. Such commendable fiscal transparency has been further underlined by the College’s willingness to invest the better part of £250,000 in legal fees to prevent the disclosure of the salary terms of many of its most popular and highly respected senior staff.

On top of all that Sir Ed is a poet of distinction. “Musing on ancient myths, on mortality, on what makes a dirty old man, Ed Byrne’s short poems, scribbled down between appointments, sitting in the tube or walking down London’s streets, slice an era of life into meaningful pieces that entrance, amuse and inspire”, so says the publisher’s summary of Poems from the City: A London Interlude. Praising the volume, literary critic Geoff Page pondered whether the publishers (Melbourne University Press) had sent back the proofs to the author to proofread. “In either case”, he noted, “we have an alarming number of proper names spelt wrongly and several undetected misuses of words. ‘Lawrence’ becomes ‘Laurence’; ‘Yeats’ becomes ‘Yate’ and Professor Byrne, while fly-fishing, feels his line go ‘taught’ rather than ‘taut.’” Furthermore, Page observed:

Without even bothering to try, MUP has thus offhandedly insulted the hundreds of contemporary Australian poets who take their art and their craft seriously and have worked for decades to develop their skills. One wonders how far these same poets would get if they were suddenly to begin submitting their intuitions regarding the human brain to The Lancet or the Journal of Neurology.

Congratulations Ed Byrne, scholar, diversity champion, Renaissance person. You have been a steady hand on the tiller, keeping King’s firmly in the top 49 universities in the world, as well as navigating a safe passage through the Covid-19 pandemic. An online “clap for Sir Ed” will no doubt be forthcoming for an award justly earned. Right now, the world is indeed looking a better place, for you at least, if not for many other people. Arise, Sir Ed, you taut us well!

Note on the authors

Thomas Less and Clayton Coutts have a long association with King’s College London and are huge admirers of Sir Ed’s work and legacy. They have chosen to write pseudo-anonymously in order to avoid any appearance of obsequiousness that may gain them an unfair career advantage over other colleagues.

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