A bitter row erupted at Oxford University last week, as student members from a refugee support group petitioned the Vice-Chancellor to dismiss Professor David Coleman for allegedly inciting hostile sentiments towards immigrants.
It emerged that Oxford Student Action for Refugees had urged the Vice-Chancellor to “consider the suitability of Coleman’s continued tenure as a professor”, because of his links to a think-tank urging stricter controls on immigration and a charity devoted to the selective breeding of humans.
Fellow members of staff and the local MP, Evan Harris, have defended Coleman’s right to express his views without fear or retribution from his employer.
The furore has provoked a wider debate concerning the rights of academics’ free speech. Prof. Coleman is the third academic in less than a year to find himself at the centre of a row over free speech. Dr. Frank Ellis at the University of Leeds was suspended after telling a student newspaper that there was a “persistent gap” in the IQ levels of various ethnic groups, supporting the bell-curve theory which asserts that ethnicity plays a role in determining the intelligence of offspring.
Similarly, the London School of Economics’ evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa was accused of reviving the policy of eugenics after publishing a paper contending that low IQs were Africa’s curse, and that African states were poor and suffered chronic ill health because their populations were – to use a polite euphemism – less cerebrally well-endowed than their counterparts in richer countries.
In this latest row, Coleman has hit back, telling Oxford student newspaper Cherwell: “It is a shameful attempt of the most intolerant and totalitarian kind to suppress the freedom of analysis and informed comment, which is the function of universities. I am ashamed that Oxford students should behave this way”.
Whilst, naturally, academics must retain their rights to intellectual free speech. However, this right can only be defended as long as their comments spark debate over difficult issues, rather than merely providing a means to hide thinly veiled racist barbs.
The University of Oxford has proffered the response: “Freedom of speech is a fundamental right respected by the university.
“Staff have freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs and privileges.”