Picture credit: Ian McIlgorm/Mail Newspapers

From monoculture to counterculture: why I am leaving Birkbeck for Buckingham

It is difficult for people with heterodox opinions to survive in modern universities

Artillery Row

After two decades, I have decided to relinquish my full professorship in Politics at Birkbeck College, University of London for the University of Buckingham.

Why leave such a cozy sinecure? 

Birkbeck’s uncertain financial position played a role, but my departure came at the end of a 5-year period of steady hostility from radical staff and students inside and outside the university. By 2018 I had begun to voice my views more forthrightly, in the press, in social media, and in my new book on populism, Whiteshift, published by Penguin. I became publicly involved in the government’s Academic Freedom Bill, which was granted royal assent this year. Throughout, I was unsparing in my criticism of wokeness, which I define as the sacralisation of historically marginalised race, gender and sexual identity groups.

This public profile placed me in the crosshairs of a well-organised network of radical students and academics

This public profile placed me in the crosshairs of a well-organised network of radical students and academics inside and outside the university who took it upon themselves to police the boundaries of acceptable debate on campus. Accordingly, I was the target of a number of Twitter pile-ons organised by student activists based in the Student Union and their online allies, calling for my ouster. An open letter denouncing me circulated online, calling on the university to fire me. In a story that made the higher education press, a young academic ideologue in my department wrote a long resignation essay, claiming I had created a hostile environment for her while suggesting that my emotionally traumatic writings forced her out of academia (in fact she had taken a job next door at SOAS). 

These internal activists came together to issue several formal complaints, which, due to the nature of British universities’ policies and procedures, tends to almost always lead to internal investigations. Until you have received an email informing you that you are under investigation and must attend a tribunal, you cannot understand the psychological impact of this tactic. The spectre of unspecified penalties sets the mind racing toward the possibility of termination — this in a collegiate profession where there are hundreds of applications for each post and gossip travels fast. Once out, getting back in is near-impossible. The process is the punishment.

Most academic colleagues I had known for years remained civil in the midst of it all. The top levels of the university were pragmatic and non-ideological. However, there is no question that these campaigns helped create a cloud of radioactivity around me. Others knew what had been written about me, I knew they knew it, and they knew I knew they knew it. This rendered ordinary interactions more awkward. When the left outnumbers the right 9 to 1 among British social science academics and a third wouldn’t hire a Brexit supporter, there is also a reflexive sympathy for those who don the mantle of anti-racism, anti-transphobia or anti-conservatism. Some suggested that my social media activity was damaging morale and even recruitment, a statistical nonsense. A number of students gave me bad teaching reviews in the year the publicity hit, though this effect disappeared the following year. 

When the university experienced financial difficulties, our department was amalgamated with less rigorous, more activist, units where I had more detractors. More seriously, I worried that activists in the new super-department could derail my research in the future by blocking it in the Ethics Committee, one of the most illiberal features of the modern academy. Though my research only uses commercial survey platforms and thus should not by any standard be delayed or blocked, these committees have become increasingly interventionist and moralistic, a soft underbelly where woke censors can police research boundaries. I knew firsthand of several colleagues whose work was blocked this way, for ideological reasons. I was willing to be a recluse and exist in my own networks — this is how dissenters such as gender critical feminists manage to survive in the modern university. But I could not accept having my research censored.

On a more positive note, I had also become aware of the University of Buckingham as a potential “safe space” for free enquiry. A free speech university like the University of Austin, but one that is already established and merely needs to be enhanced and developed, it was founded by Margaret Thatcher in 1976 and has been led by a series of conservative or classical liberal Vice-Chancellors. Thatcher herself served as Chancellor in the 90s. Though most of its staff and students probably still lean left — this is a university after all — it scored top spot in the country for freedom of speech on the National Student Survey (the question was only introduced this year). It also has an active student free speech society and several conservative, classical liberal or centrist staff in the humanities and social sciences. 

Its new Vice-Chancellor, James Tooley, is a strong proponent of academic freedom. For instance, in 2022, the university awarded an honorary doctorate to Tony Sewell, author of the pathbreaking Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED) Report — after Nottingham University withdrew its offer of an honorary doctorate to Sewell. It also helped sponsor the important Battle of Ideas festival in London. The vision is not to create a conservative alternative, but rather a balanced free space.

This month, I join Buckingham as a Professor of Politics. I believe it can be a beachhead for academic freedom and viewpoint diversity, the only point of light in an increasingly monocultural higher education ecosystem. Mine is a path trod by Roger Scruton, who also taught at Birkbeck for over 20 years before taking up a post at Buckingham later in life, which he described in 2019 as “a unique institution, probably the least politically correct university in Europe.”

In January 2024, I am launching a new low-cost online course open to the global public on Woke: the Origins, Dynamics and Implications of an Elite Ideology (People can express interest using this link). This is an ideology that is reshaping western society and politics, yet there isn’t a single course on it that I am aware of in any university in the world. Most academics are more interested in criticising those who resist woke than putting their institutional belief system under the microscope. 

At the same time, I will establish the Centre for Heterodox Social Science, whose mission will be to pursue countercultural social science and humanities research. While the US has some 150 non-leftist research centres, nothing of the kind exists in Britain.

Progressive conformity and cancel culture are distorting the teaching and research mission of universities. Between the extremely controversial (ethics of paedophilia, race and IQ) and the progressive-controlled monoculture of academia is a vast and growing zone of unspoken truth. The system raises high bars to work that challenges leftist narratives (i.e. that race or gender income gaps might not be caused by discrimination, or that the connection between LGBT identity and poor mental health may not be due to prejudice). Yet without studies that can give us a more accurate picture of social problems, we cannot hope to resolve them. Simply sticking ‘prejudice and discrimination’ on a problem will not address it if these are not its root causes.

My aim is to teach and research on topics, or from perspectives, that are difficult or hazardous in the contemporary university. This can begin to elevate truth rather than identity leftism as the highest value of the university, rebalancing academia’s lost viewpoint diversity and helping it to regain the trust it is losing among many in the public.

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