Tom tower at Oxford university
Artillery Row

The sound of silence

View from Oxford: a letter to the Vice-Chancellor

Writing in his Essays in Criticism in 1865, Matthew Arnold famously called Oxford a “home of lost causes, and forsaken beliefs”. Some plucky students have recently decided to take the University to task over which causes it seems presently willing to espouse and which to ignore; which beliefs it intends to uphold, and which to forsake.

After George Floyd was killed in May, and in the wake of protests by Black Lives Matter, numerous official statements were issued. The University and its constituent colleges amply demonstrated that it was possible, even in the depth of a national lockdown, to reach out to students and staff who might have been affected by the events, and to provide multiple initiatives in the dual spheres of welfare and curriculum.

Since the beheading of the French schoolmaster Samuel Paty, however, there has been institutional silence. It has not gone unremarked that some of Paty’s colleagues revealed information about him to parents at the school, nor that one of those parents was in contact with his murderer, nor even that certain students identified him to his killer in the minutes before the attack.

Paty was killed because he used the 2015 Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad to teach his pupils, ironically enough, about issues of freedom of speech and tolerance of difference. All of us who teach at Oxford have—or at least should have—at some point led our charges out of their comfort zones to help them widen their horizons; in the end, that is the bottom line of what education is about.

The following letter, therefore, has been sent to the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson; the student-organisers describe it as having been signed by students, teachers, scholars, staff, and alumni:

On 16 October 2020, Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old middle-school teacher, was killed and beheaded in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, France. He was murdered for teaching a class of 13- and 14-year-old pupils about freedom of speech and tolerance, using a pair of Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The response to their original publication was the terrorist attack on 7 January 2015, in which 12 people were slaughtered. In order to cater to individual sensitivities, the teacher invited students of any creed or origin who might feel offended to take a break from his class.

Shortly after his lesson, Paty was threatened by some of the students’ parents. The Ministry of National Education did not intervene, despite being notified of the issue. Some of his own colleagues chose to participate in Paty’s defamation, and divulged private information about him. And as the official investigation following Paty’s slaughter has shown, one of the parents posted a video condemning the teacher and communicated with his murderer several times before the terrorist attack.

In the UK, the silence of universities and teachers’ unions has been deafening

In the days that followed, individual scholars, research institutions, and French universities condemned Paty’s murder. In the UK, by contrast, the silence of universities and teachers’ unions has been deafening. There has been, to this day, no official response from the National Education Union, the National Union of Journalists, the University and College Union, Universities UK, or the Index of Censorship, whose task is to defend freedom of expression. The University of Oxford was no exception: no statement was issued; no support was offered to students who might have been traumatised by the event.

Since 2015 and the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, tensions in France have steadily increased. This year, a series of violent murders have profoundly shocked people around the world. Even among these acts, the murder of Samuel Paty stands as a particular warning to students, teachers, and scholars; it is a direct threat towards those of us who would carry out our mission to transmit knowledge and to uphold freedom of speech. The silence of the foreign universities in response is deeply troubling. We look up to our University as a place that stands up not only for its own members and defends their rights and welfare, but also one that supports the rights of the academic community altogether. Given its tradition of free inquiry and global reputation, the University of Oxford has a wider duty towards those learning, teaching, and researching, wherever they are.

We, current students and teachers, as well as alumni, now call on the University of Oxford to make a public commitment to the defence of free speech in Britain, France, and around the world; to condemn unequivocally those who would use force or intimidation to stifle research and education; to stand in solidarity with academics who face threats of genuine violence; and ultimately, to live up to the purpose of a university in doing so.

A response to this letter from Professor Richardson—who has in the past been encouragingly robust on issues of academic freedom—may go some way to answering a question posed by Voltaire in his Dictionnaire philosophique of 1764: “What do you say to a man who tells you that he prefers to obey God, not men, and who is convinced he will earn his place in heaven by slitting your throat?”

Members of the University may still sign the letter, should they wish. It is available here.

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