Artillery Row

How King’s College London has become Cancel College

The buccaneering spirit of King’s has gone, and with it its international standing

Two King’s College academics – writing pseudonymously in the interests of self preservation – recount how the university has moved from being the bastion of liberal learning they joined to being at the forefront of woke censorship.  It is now a place where it is unsafe for them to voice their mainstream views openly.

Hi, thank you for raising this with us. We do not tolerate racism or any form of prejudice or discrimination levelled at anyone based on their skin colour, ethnicity or religion. Such behaviour is subject to our misconduct processes. We are looking into this serious matter.

This somewhat friendly response was to a complainant who fittingly labels herself as @GrimWorldView. It was sent by King’s College London, notable as one of the country’s premier ‘social justice’ universities, embracing corporate woke ideology and puritanical identity politics.

The offence, as reported by The Tab student newspaper, was a comment by a young white student who had posted a video on TikTok in which she appeared next to a black girl in a school prospectus, with the caption: –

Did I intentionally sit next to a black girl during a school photoshoot because I knew they would publish those pictures to show that they had ‘diversity’?

A silly teenage remark perhaps, but it was clearly not malicious. Nonetheless, the video was circulated widely online after King’s tweeted its support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Lynched by an online mob, this student should have been protected by her university, which recently launched a programme to tackle a mental health crisis on campus. Instead, King’s was more interested in performing an anti-racism ritual. Public shaming, to which the university contributed, could have caused suicidal distress.

Such inquisitions are occurring at universities across the country, but King’s is an exemplar of the modern Witchfinder-General. Students are liable to be censured and punished for personal blogs or social media posts written before they ever came to the institution. The basic idea of young people being able to express themselves, to experiment with ideas, and sometimes to err (shock, horror), is quashed. In an atmosphere of Maoist fervour, the system socially rewards a legion of informers who are never short of a target.

Censorship at King’s has undoubtedly worsened

Censorship at King’s has undoubtedly worsened. In 2018 Adam Perkins, lecturer in neuroscience, was prevented from discussing free speech with the Libertarian Society after a ‘risk assessment’. Four hundred students had signed a petition against Perkins, who had allegedly stigmatised minority groups in his book The Welfare Trait. A King’s spokesperson said: ‘We do not have enough resources to make sure that this event can be managed safely’. Absurdly, the university blamed and banished the speaker for the actions of intolerant protestors.

The cancelling of Perkins reflects a curious penchant at King’s for de-platforming its own staff. Similarly, a talk by research fellow Heather Brunskell-Evans on the dangers of sexualisation of young women was abruptly cancelled. In a panel discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze about gender identity, Brunskell-Evans had urged caution in enabling children to redefine themselves. Such heresy contravened the student union’s ‘safe space’ policy.

Abandoning student-sponsored talks because of supposed ‘safety concerns’ due to politically motivated complaints and partisan student unions is bad enough. It is what this evolving cancel culture says about the College’s underlying commitment – or lack of it – towards freedom of thought that is most revealing. In ‘University of Fear’, an essay published by the think tank CIEO, M.L.R. Smith recounted the surreal obfuscation and intimidation he encountered at King’s when trying to run a series of speaking events aimed – innocuously enough – at reinvigorating civil debate pertaining to the so-called culture war.

Smith argued that behind the façade of rhetorical declarations about free speech lurked deeply authoritarian impulses directed at closing down avenues of free expression. The tactics of censorship are interesting. The 1986 Education Act specifies that lawful speech must not be inhibited on campus. However, in contrast to other universities like Oxford or Reading that have publicly defended the academic freedom of their staff against complaints from inside or outside the institution, the default position of King’s towards those who fail to show sufficient deference to woke ideology is to apply the full force of the disciplinary apparatus.

Post something politically incorrect on Facebook, be a signatory to a group letter that contradicts a fashionable orthodoxy (e.g. on transgenderism), or express an off-colour opinion in a private capacity outside the workplace, and you risk being reported to the university authorities, who seem – as the King’s tweet above illustrates – only too happy to highlight transgression of their declared ‘values’. Miscreants are placed at the mercy of ‘HR procedures’, thereby subjected to suspensions, investigations, hearings and punishments. If the misconduct processes were applied equally to all shades of ‘controversial’ opinion that would at least be fair, if somewhat despotic. However, the cancel culture at King’s is shamelessly biased.

Brexit was the defining moment in the collapse of any semblance of impartial tolerance. A quasi-official stance in academe effectively silenced those who voted to leave the EU. The few openly Brexit-supporting students were insulted as ‘idiots’ or accused of being ‘far right’. Scholars who spoke out risked being ostracised and their career prospects blighted. A senior lecturer who was filmed calling an opposing campaigner a ‘traitor’ at a rally, has disappeared under disciplinary inquisition.

Remainers, by contrast, vented their angry opinions on social media with abandon, their rights to free speech upheld to the letter. No holds are barred, for example, on the infamous anti-Brexit rhetoric of Jonathan Portes. But double standards abound. Last year professor of security studies Peter Neumann attended a speech by Michael Gove at the German Embassy in London. Neumann tweeted that Gove had likened Brexit to the fall of the Berlin Wall, drawing a cry of ‘Nonsense’. This spread widely on Twitter, with ensuing outrage. But the transcript recording showed that Neumann had lied. The Critic’s  contributor Douglas Murray saw this as a symptom of academic degeneration: ‘King’s is fast-becoming a home for insignificant polemicists masquerading as academics’, he observed.

The notion of censorship is denied by the broader academic establishment, as its house bulletin is quick to assert. Times Higher Education criticised government advisor Munira Mirza for bemoaning ‘activist academics’. Mirza, who worked at King’s from January to July 2019, had written for the Daily Telegraph on the stifling intellectual climate in universities: –

“There is a growing trend for activist academics to sign ‘open letters’ against colleagues. The aim is quite explicit: to close down discussion about sensitive issues – especially around race, sexuality and gender – and, by doing so, narrow the boundaries of acceptable speech, often on the unproven grounds that the feelings of individuals from minority groups will be hurt.”

Mirza was only speaking the truth that universities don’t wish to hear. This Kingdom of Cancel shows no willingness to reflect on how it has become a citadel of narrow ideological conformity and groupthink, while trampling over traditional educational values of disinterested inquiry and freedom of thought. King’s is part of a wider intellectual degradation, if perhaps one of the most egregious. But it wasn’t always like this; indeed, we have been at King’s for long enough to see a startling change.

When we started at King’s there was no doubting its status as a prestigious, liberal institution

When we started at King’s there was no doubting its status as a prestigious, liberal institution. Senior leadership positions were occupied by devoted and highly-respected scholars. They effused the high values of academe, nurturing a collegiate and open-minded ethos. Older King’s hands will recall a sometimes idiosyncratic, less managerialist and more tolerant institution.

A university needs to change and move with the times. However, the model of mass expansion of fee-paying students has attracted a very different style of administrator: one who is careerist, technocratic and corporatist in outlook. Such leaders, often outsiders to the university or indeed academe, have little interest in – and no time for understanding – the motivating values of scholarship, debate and free exchange of ideas.

In its ‘old ways’ King’s had a buccaneering spirit with a reputation for original thinking, innovative teaching, and Nobel prize-winning research. Educational standards and staff morale were high. These positives were reflected in other obvious ways. In the first decade of the twentieth century, intranet circulars brought regular updates of the slow but steady rise in the international rankings of the world’s best universities, eventually King’s reached the top 20.

These days, communication to the King’s community is dominated by pronouncements extolling the ‘ProudlyKing’s’ celebrations of Pride Week with platitudes on LGBT+ identity (‘You’re amazing. We see you’). Earnest messages are conveyed on tackling racism and prejudice in all its forms, including the reporting of ‘racial microaggressions’, along with Black Lives Matter resource pages. In addition, these circulars are replete with politically-skewed critiques of the government’s Covid-19 response, with praise for the European Union’s economic rescue plan, whilst (rather conveniently) soft-peddling on any criticism of China.

One thing you won’t see in these College bulletins is any reporting of the university’s standing in the world’s university rankings. Since 2014 the College has fallen far, and is now barely rated in the top 40. Funny, that. A university goes woke and falls off its perch. They say correlation is not necessarily cause…but sometimes it is.

The authors of this piece are two members of King’s academic staff who, for reasons of self-preservation, wish to remain anonymous.

Since the publication of this article we have received a reply from Professor Frans Berkhout the Co-Chair of the Freedom of Expression Standing Advisory Group:

Dear Sir,

The premise of the title of the article ‘How King’s College has become Cancel College’, alleging that controversial events have been cancelled at King’s College London is unfounded. Before the Covid pandemic put paid to all events at the College, only one event had been cancelled at King’s in the past 5 years – a speaker with Jihadist sympathies who had spoken at King’s events at least twice before. Each year we host over 300 events on our Strand Campus alone. Most of these are open to the public.

We take seriously our own commitments to Freedom of Expression and are required under UK law to encourage the broadest possible interpretation of that essential freedom. The two events alluded to in the article went ahead smoothly and led to good discussions precisely because of the safeguards which the College puts in place for all events. We are careful because we know that the defence of freedom of expression can come with costs. In 2018 one of our security staff was hospitalised while seeking to protect students and staff at a student society event at King’s.

All events are treated in the same way, whether an event organised by the Libertarian Society, the Marxist Society or the Palestine Action society. The great care we put into ensuring a civil and safe exchange at these events is evidence of our deep commitment to freedom of expression on campus. We do not disagree on this point with your correspondent.

As to the authors’ final point about rankings, I am sure that they will have been delighted to read that King’s College London was one of the very few UK universities to improve its standing in the latest QS World Ranking of Universities 2020. In the field of Politics & International Studies the College moved up three places to number 15 in the world.

All best regards,

Frans Berkhout

Co-Chair, Freedom of Expression Standing Advisory Group

King’s College London


Thomas Less and Clayton Coutts have since replied:

Why does any university require a committee on freedom of expression? The right to speak freely, to challenge and be challenged in an open exchange of ideas, should be the lifeblood of any university education. It should, literally, go without saying. If it needs to be said, something is amiss. 

That the reply to our article ‘How King’s College London became Cancel College’, which detailed the worsening climate of censoriousness on campus, emanates from one Frans Berkhout, co-chair of the College’s Robespierrian sounding ‘Freedom of Expression Standing Advisory Group’, at the very least suggests an institution that has an awkward relationship with liberal values. And, as the contents of his response rather predictably revealed, (at the end of our original article) Mr Berkhout seems to possess what may be charitably described as a minimalist appreciation of the concept of free speech, and a feeble grasp of the contours of contemporary cancel culture. 

Mr Berkhout contends that King’s College takes the principle of freedom of expression ‘very seriously’ and that because the university organises over 300 speaking events a year, the premise of our article is unfounded. Presumably Mr Berkhout is a functionary charged with creating the best possible optics for the College, and evidently his response to the concerns raised by our widely-read article is: move along now, nothing to see here. 

However, just because an institution hosts numerous public meetings proves nothing at all about any professed commitment to freedom of expression on campus. To that extent, Mr Berkhout’s message is little more than an exercise in deflection from the main thrust of our article. This was not that the university routinely cancels events, but that over recent years an increasingly illiberal atmosphere has taken hold in which students and staff find it difficult to speak beyond the bounds of conformity to a range of fashionable ‘social justice’ causes and ideological stances that the university endorses. Interestingly, Mr Berkhout provides no refutation of our central claim. His silence on this point is a revealing sign of the university’s actual commitment to the principles of free speech.

The College seems content not only to accommodate this intolerance, but to facilitate its spread

Cancel culture at King’s, as our article was at pains to stress, takes the form of leaving students and staff to suffer at the hands of eager offence-takers who stop at nothing to report those with whom they disagree as purveyors of ‘hate’. The unambiguous agenda is social obliteration: traducing the reputation and character of anyone expressing undesirable opinions with the goal of disciplining not only the direct target of their opprobrium but also the wider community. 

To exercise freedom of expression in such a hostile environment is to actively invite reprisals. Far from protecting the rights of its students and staff, the College seems content not only to accommodate this intolerance, but to facilitate its spread by launching the investigatory machinery on anyone accused of wrongthink from either inside or outside the university. Mr Berkhout sidestepped the case of the young student who is under investigation for making a harmless joke on social media. 

Universities have been able to punish students and staff, sometimes severely, below the radar. Mr Berkhout may not be aware of the increasing number of people subjected to misconduct proceedings for speech crimes, but the senior administration will certainly know of expulsions and sanctions, as threatened with the likes of the aforementioned student. Anyone caught in the inquisition is bound by confidentiality, but this can trap the accused into isolation and helplessness, awaiting their judgement by people who quite possibly abhor their beliefs.

Indeed, we drew attention to the manifestly one-sided application of the disciplinary apparatus. Staff and students are assailed with internal communications on correct thinking. In the past, the propaganda of identity politics was a fringe performance, but now it’s on the main stage, as if the primary purpose of the university is to celebrate favoured groups rather than setting the highest intellectual standards. Woke mission statements are so prominent that they seem designed to scare any lingering traditionalists into compliance. If the senior management don’t understand the chilling effect of this explicit ideological positioning on the intellectual atmosphere, they are naïve. More likely, though, this is a wielding of bureaucratic power to instil a predisposition towards self-censorship.

In this regard, given Mr Berkhout’s role in overseeing freedom of expression on campus, it would be useful to pose some questions to him. In order to safeguard the College’s supposedly ‘deep commitment’ to free expression, what is the scope for anyone on campus to voice – openly – reservations on, for example, the ideology of the Black Lives Matter movement, or transgenderism, or the concept of ‘racial microaggressions’, or the steadily developing policy of ‘decolonising the curriculum’? Is it acceptable that people should have epithets of racism, bigotry and fascism screamed at them for trying to express reasoned points against some of these shibboleths? Would the university defend them? And, since Mr Berkhout refers to protests at events, what disciplinary actions were taken against those who aggressively sought to silence speakers? Did the College enforce its codes against bullying and harassment?

The original article alluded to the deleterious impact of the descent into intellectual conformism, by pointing out the corresponding decline of King’s in the university rankings. Mr Berkhout wishes to raise a glass with us on the College moving up (slightly) in the recent QS rankings and its political science rating of 15th best in the world. It should be expected that a Russell Group university located in central London with a venerable tradition, especially in science and medicine, would preserve pockets of accomplishment (the dentistry school is ranked second in the world). We are glad, of course, to extol the examples of scholarly achievement that the university manages to maintain. We look forward to hearing about how King’s performs in the National Student Survey results this year, which will surely confirm the upward trajectory of which Mr Berkhout boasts.

All of that does not, however, negate the point that the institution has regressed from the position that it attained a decade previously. May be Mr Berkhout shares with us a degree of scepticism about the absolute value of world university rankings, but we see the declining performance of King’s as indicative of the long-term effects of the stifling of free speech on campus. If world rankings equate to the stock market of esteem, then King’s has lost nearly half of its value over recent years. If the university sector truly existed in a market where price competition prevailed, then the company board would by now be asking some tough questions of its management.

Overall, Mr Berkhout’s response does not provide much reassurance that King’s has anything but a synthetic commitment to freedom of expression. He does not rebut our argument that the College is succumbing to the tightening grip of cancel culture. And that is the point about cancel culture: it is not a practice, it is the development of an institutional climate that constricts the capacity for free thinking over time. It is not the outward appearance of an institution that holds hundreds of events: it is the hollowed out core on the inside. It is insidious not because it is overt but because it is so underhand. It proceeds slowly, stealthily, and often invisibly. 

Our final remarks in this respect are directed at those in King’s, and elsewhere across the higher education sector, who may sympathise with what we say but choose to keep quiet in the face of creeping cancel culture. It takes some boldness these days to speak up openly and critically. We admit that we fall short on that score. It is a matter of regret that we have lost confidence in the ability of the institution to defend fundamental academic values to the point where we feel the need to write pseudonymously. Make no mistake, though, cancel culture is coming for you. Not speaking up in the hope that it will pass you by is an illusion. It won’t save you. Cancel culture affects everyone, whether they realise it or not. 

If people think about it, they are already in the process of being cancelled. For in refusing to speak out we cancel our voice. We cancel our judgment. We cancel our Enlightenment values of liberty and fairness. We cancel our moral principles. We cancel our humour. We cancel our Christmas drinks. We cancel our right to be taken seriously. We cancel our integrity.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover