King's College, Cambridge

Who runs Cambridge?

The battle between truth-seekers and social justice warriors at the top of academia

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Don’t be mistaken: this matters

Academics often console themselves with Kissinger’s bon mot that the reason university politics is so vicious is because the stakes are so small. And yet in the midst of these eerily peaceful plague months in the Fens disagreements have been aired in which the stakes have never seemed greater, distilling as they have so many aspects of the broader national debate over balancing fundamental liberties of conscience and expression against the avoidance of psychological harm.

Intramurally, the source of these disagreements can crudely but plausibly be characterised as a tension between two distinct visions of the purpose of a university. The Truth-Seeking Vision insists that the university’s overriding aim should be the preservation, pursuit, and promotion of truth. 

The Truth-Seekers further believe that the importance of that aim justifies the frictions and rivalries that inevitably arise, especially in demanding intellectual environments populated by brilliant but eccentric individuals more prone than most to idiosyncratic behaviour. 

Tensions are almost always quietly resolved in favour of the Coddling Vision of a university

By contrast, the Coddling Vision insists that although truth-seeking is a laudable and important aim, it should never supersede the greater goal of pursuing equality, diversity, and inclusion, or of maximising the psychological wellbeing of its members. 

As it happens, the Truth-Seeking Vision and the Coddling Vision do not come into open conflict quite as often as breathless press reports might lead one to imagine, though that is because tensions are almost always quietly resolved in favour of the Coddlers. Towards the end of last year, however, something unexpected happened: a few dozen of the Truth-Seekers, led by the indefatigable analytic philosopher Arif Ahmed, forced a series of votes challenging a brazen attempt by the University’s senior leadership to wire the Coddling Vision into the ancient fabric of Cambridge.

The result provided a rare and, thanks to the mechanism of a secret ballot, an unusually accurate measure of which vision had greater support among the university’s members. On a sizeable turnout, members of the Regent House (the university parliament) voted for the Truth-Seeking Vision by one of the largest margins since the Second World War. Cambridge wants to remain what it was, whatever the people currently running it want to do to the university.

So it came as a shock when a few months later the university announced the launch of a campaign plainly designed to institutionalise the Coddling Vision. More than two years in the planning and devised at significant cost in terms of direct expenditure and administrative hours, “Change the Culture” was initiated in response to surveys purportedly showing that the university was suffering from an epidemic of discrimination and harassment. Indeed a casual visitor to the campaign’s website could have been forgiven for thinking that the Fens had been overrun by marauding mobs of racists, homophobes and misogynists. 

Staff and students were directed to materials comprising a Code of Behaviour, a Grievance Policy, and “Mutual Respect Policy” to replace an existing “Dignity at Work Policy”. The centrepiece of the campaign was an anonymous reporting system designed to deal with harassment, which was accompanied by guidance shot through with the tell-tale idiolect of “Critical Theory” and “Critical Race Theory” in particular.

In a microaggression, the intention of the perpetrator is irrelevant

Most remarkably of all, the guidance featured a shopping list of “microaggressions”, a term which — for those struggling to keep up with the ceaselessly expanding patois — is wokish for apparently trivial slights that “CRT” encourages its acolytes to perceive as subjectively harmful.

Since subjective perception of harm is the only evidence required to establish a microaggression, the intention of the perpetrator is irrelevant (a view that incidentally fails to reflect the statutory criteria for determining harassment under section 26(4) of the Equality Act 2010).

The microaggressions included turning one’s back on someone, offering backhanded compliments, raising eyebrows, and failing to use a person’s “preferred pronouns”. The guidance also took the view that “lived experience” should trump objective evidence, which would have created an environment in which the boundaries of accepta ble communication were in a state of constant flux. 

Racism was defined as “a system where [sic] people from racially minoritised [sic] backgrounds are more likely than white people to face multiple obstacles in life, from being targets of direct or indirect discrimination and [sic] micro-aggressions.” The definition expressly foreclosed the possibility that white staff or students could be the targets of racially motivated abuse. On Planet CRT, non-whites are dermatologically incapable of racism since the “system” is not “structured” to benefit them. 

This is because it is a foundational truism of CRT that any disparity where non-whites are worse off than whites is evidence of culpable and systemic discrimination by whites, even where the same evidence shows that some whites are worse off than non-whites or that some groups of non-whites are better off than whites as a group. Wherever one stood on the moral propriety of this definition, the policy would almost certainly have exposed the university to the risk of litigation, since (needless to say) “whiteness” is not excluded from the statutory definition of racism under the Equality Act. 

More than one colleague expressed their amazement to me that a policy could have been announced and publicly defended that was so obviously vulnerable to being challenged in the courts as unlawful discrimination against white students and staff on the basis of skin colour.

A number of other familiar tropes from CRT were embedded in the definition, including the plainly preposterous implications that racism could only be understood as the feature of a “system” and never as a failure of individual moral responsibility, or that racism is tacitly enshrined in the norms and value systems of Western culture, a culture whose openness to people of any and every ethnic background is by every empirical measure historically unprecedented.

The fact that the definitions and concepts were drawn directly from CRT suggested that, notwithstanding the veneer of institutional neutrality, the reporting system could easily have been deployed against those with views that diverge from the identitarian orthodoxies that now saturate the culture of the university. And although it has now been stripped of the catalogue of microaggressions, there is every reason to suppose that if it returns the system will inflate out of all proportion the sort of squabbling that is, alas, a longstanding feature of university life.

Vice Chancellor Stephen Toope

In short, what the Vice-Chancellor, Stephen Toope, would later refer to as “ancillary material” had broadened the scope of what counted as misconduct at Cambridge to an extraordinary degree. In its original form, the regime would have conferred on Human Resources powers to police via anonymous informants masquerading as victims any conversation or behaviour that took place among staff and students. No doubt university management would insist that every accusation would be handled fairly and anyone making frivolous accusations would be reprimanded. 

But when a person’s subjective determination of an offence is all that is needed to prove it, when the standard of proof in misconduct investigations is changed from beyond reasonable doubt to the balance of probability (as has been the case at Cambridge since October 2019), and when the Star Chamber is administered by the same part of the university that thought making microaggressions a formal offence would be a good idea, one could be forgiven for treating that response with some scepticism.

Once the campaign had begun to attract negative coverage in the national press, Prof Eilís Ferran, the Pro Vice Chancellor ostensibly responsible for the campaign, vigorously defended the policy in a letter to the Daily Telegraph. Awkwardly for her, a few hours after it was published the Vice Chancellor himself ordered the “Report+Support” component to be taken down, conceding in a statement that the “ancillary material” had been included “in error” and without his knowledge. 

Three days later the site went back up, stripped of the objectionable material — which had been replaced by anodyne language that correctly reflected the legal position on harassment and discrimination. At the same time, a working group was set up to weigh up the merits of an anonymous reporting tool. It may well be the case that the mechanism remains in place. 

They’re trying to do what they’re doing

What are the Truth-Seekers to make of all this? It is tempting to treat this embarrassing affair as a textbook instance of one of the Three Laws of Politics typically attributed to Robert Conquest, the third of which states that the simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucracy is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. I am more inclined to resort to Hanlon’s Razor: always refrain from attributing to conspiracy what is more plausibly attributable to a cock-up.

The Vice Chancellor’s admission that the objectionable material had been put up in error should be taken at face value. What is not clear, however, is what he believed the error to be. Some suspect that the error was not that the university had mistakenly institutionalised principles drawn from an extraordinarily contentious ideological framework, but that it had mistakenly publicised that it had done so. No doubt some may think this view unduly cynical; but the worry is not entirely unfounded. After all, the objectionable material was operative for an entire week and was only removed after three days of enormously damaging press coverage.

Long before the George Floyd riots, staff inboxes were overflowing with invitations to “race awareness” workshops

It was publicly defended in its entirety and in its original form in a letter from the official who announced it (Prof Ferran was presumably aware of the list of microaggressions when defending the campaign in her letter, since that was the focus of the article that provoked it). Furthermore, there can be little doubt that the ideology reflected in the regime — one that is currently engulfing vast swathes of the nation’s institutional landscape — has the support of more than a handful of senior figures in the university. 

Long before the George Floyd Memorial Riots, staff inboxes were overflowing with invitations to university workshops or lectures or courses on “race awareness”, all of which robotically intone the wokus pocus of Ibram X. Kendi or Reni Eddo-Lodge or any of the other authors lucratively laundering political activism as serious academic inquiry. No one in receipt of these messages could have been surprised to learn that the university’s disciplinary policy was beginning to reflect the ideology hovering in the background of so many of its internal communications.

Prof Eilís Ferran

The language and concepts contained in the original site was fully consistent with a divisive ideology whose dominance over the institutional life of the university is as unmistakable as it is unchallengeable. The worst elements of the revised policies may have been permanently withdrawn from public view; but in the absence of assurances to the contrary, there is every reason to suspect that behind closed doors those elements will lurk beneath the surface of disciplinary processes and continue to exercise a chilling effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Who runs Cambridge?

Two weeks after the initial announcement, another storm broke. As dons tried to understand how the debacle could have happened, some startlingly obvious questions began to be raised. Under what authority had the campaign been launched in the first place? How could drastic changes to procedures and policies be introduced on behalf of the collegiate university simply by someone anonymously posting them on a website? 

After all, the university’s statutes state that any act undertaken on behalf of the university requires approval “by Grace of the Regent House” (after a formal discussion and vote in the university parliament), unless the power to do so has been properly delegated. No discussion or vote had taken place and it remains unclear for now whether that power was ever delegated in the first place. It was almost certainly concerns such as these that finally prompted the Vice Chancellor to withdraw the entire “Change the Culture” campaign.

It had become clear, he admitted, that “the updated HR policies which underpinned the campaign were launched prematurely and without full scrutiny.” He had, in effect, boxed himself in. For he was asking his colleagues to accept that bad behaviour had become so endemic that only root-and-branch changes to disciplinary policies could address it, while imposing those changes without scrutiny on the basis that they were too minor to warrant consultation with the wider university.

Given the scale of the defeat when the Coddling Vision was put to a vote of the university last December, resistance to wider debate about a policy that would also have institutionalised that vision is hardly surprising. Still, there can be no doubt that had the proper democratic procedures been followed, the most reputationally damaging and legally suspect elements of the campaign would never have seen the light of day.

The incident has solidified a large coalition of concerned champions of the Truth-Seeking Vision

There are some aspects of this sorry saga for which we should be grateful. For one thing, the university has been spared the sight of dons tiptoeing backwards out of lecture theatres, eyebrows carefully furrowed, anxiously avoiding giving any compliments, and busily consulting the latest encyclopaedia of approved pronouns. 

Factor in genuflections with raised fist for Black Lives Matter and the physiological toll that woke callisthenics would have taken on portly professors does not bear thinking about.

For another, the incident has solidified a large coalition of concerned champions of the Truth-Seeking Vision with the determination and resources to prevent the university from succumbing wholesale to the Coddling Vision. Moreover, as Parliament prepares to debate the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, incidents such as these may focus the minds of voters and legislators on the scale of the problem that the legislation is intended to mitigate. And finally, the last few months may at long last have chastened the senior leadership’s dirigisme and reminded it of the good sense of submitting its decisions to the democratic scrutiny of the collegiate university.

We should keep asking why a small group of ideologically motivated people are so intent upon pursuing this agenda

Higher education ought to be a shining beacon on the landscape of a post-Brexit economy. As this sad debacle was unfolding, it was announced that four UK universities had been ranked in the world’s top ten and eight of them in the top 50. In that latter tier, London alone has four times as many universities as the European Union. Relative to our size, no other country can match us for the calibre of our higher education and research sector. That is why the United States is our only rival for the soft power that it bestows upon us. 

We can but hope that university leaders throughout the land quickly recall themselves to the value of what they are stewarding on the nation’s behalf and that they begin to recognise the dangers of imposing ideologically partisan policies that would elevate Coddling above Truth-Seeking. 

We should keep asking why a small group of ideologically motivated people are so intent upon pursuing this agenda. And we should keep asking that until we finally get some answers. For the truth shall set us free.

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