Commons Mail #2: Academic Freedom

Dear Subscriber,

Welcome back to Commons Mail. We have been busy here at UCU Commons publicising our slate of candidates, putting our ideas out in blogs and across twitter, attending hustings (both the Midlands area and Manchester branch anti-casual events). We have also been getting some very… interesting emails from groups purportedly concerned with academic freedom, which in their view appears to be the freedom to voice ‘controversial’ or discriminatory opinions unblemished by evidence in virtually any public square without consequence. We’re pretty sure that’s not what it is. While we might agree that such an unfortunate extension of “speaker’s corner” is a question of free speech worthy of considered debate, we find the deliberate conflation with academic freedom disconcerting, because it seems designed to lend a scholarly aura to certain opinions sorely lacking it.

We therefore decided it was time to reissue a public statement from last year’s NEC elections: the “Candidate Statement on Transgender Inclusion and Academic Freedom”, which you can find here in updated form and with new signatories. Mark Pendleton explains why this is an important moment to reaffirm our commitment to trans-inclusive unionism and to practical solidarity with all trans, non-binary, and genderqueer comrades who are even now under direct and unceasing attack in British society. Trans rights are human rights, and trans worker rights are union rights.

Here at UCU Commons we are, as it happens, quite concerned by actual attacks on academic freedom; defined properly as the freedom to teach and conduct research, to follow knowledge carefully, ethically, and responsibly wherever it leads us, without our jobs being threatened by management or by government. Ironically several UCU Commoners are fighting redundancies which violate their academic freedom right now, and the campaign to resist cuts at Leicester has gained international prominence since our last mail. UCU Commons member Keir Millburn went on the Owen Jones Show on 18th February to talk Owen and his viewers through the blatant assaults on academic freedom that he, David Harvie, Gareth Brown, and many other scholars at Leicester are currently working hard to resist. UCU Commons is quite squarely aligned with our larger union movement in this respect; the General Secretary of UCU Jo Grady has wasted no time and minced no words after the announcement of the government’s new ‘free speech champion’ and proposed speech laws. Even Research Professional News got in on the action this week, with their satirical (and wonderfully titled) take on Williamson’s speech laws: ‘The Wokefinder General’.

We’re quite happy to debate these matters though, and UCU Commoner Eric Lybeck has already stepped up to the plate and offered to debate Matt Goodwin’s dubious claims about speech in universities at a time of Matt’s choosing. Freeze Peach Live! will offer Matt and anyone else who cares to a chance to get exactly what they claim to want: a chance to really debate the issues, and we are curious to see whether anyone will take Eric up on his offer. UCU Commons is not going to back softly away from this latest manufactured controversy over academic freedom and freedom of speech. To do so would, we think, be ceding the field to a range of voices and influences acting in bad faith.