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

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