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Oxford head wants gay students to debate homophobic teachers

Here’s why comments made yesterday by Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson are problematic and out of touch

Louise Richardson, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, has caused consternation among academics and students by saying that lecturers should be free to make homophobic comments. She made this argument on Monday in a talk at the Times Higher Education’s world academic summit, in which she also defended her £350,000 salary in the face of criticism about inflated VC pay. 

In the talk, reported by the BBC, Richardson claims that she has had ‘many conversations’ with students who felt uncomfortable in classes because their professors had expressed views against homosexuality. Her response? Her job isn’t to make students feel comfortable; education is about being exposed to different viewpoints that might make students feel uncomfortable; students should learn to engage with and challenge the views of their professors, and try to change their minds. The Oxford University LGBTQ+ society issued a statement in response yesterday, saying that it “condemns the Vice-Chancellor’s failure to recognise the real ongoing consequences of homophobia within her own university.” 

Of course, freedom of speech is a critical issue in academia. All academics need to know that their institution will support their right to engage with controversial topics; academic research should not be subject to prying oversight by management or government. We need to know that we have the freedom to express views with which our institutions and funders might not agree, and it feels like this freedom has been threatened recently. In the United States, for example, academics recently have been told to remove terms like ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ from research funded by government agencies. In Britain, many of us are worried about how the government’s Prevent anti-terrorism legislation obliges academics to monitor students for signs of radicalisation.

But what Louise Richardson is describing here is not academic freedom of speech, but the freedom of professors in a position of power to create an unsafe and unwelcoming atmosphere in their classrooms. Nobody is dismissing the right of these professors to hold offensive views in private (although, to be honest, I’d be pretty upset if I thought that any of my colleagues did so). But when these views are expressed in the classroom – to the extent that students actively feel uncomfortable – this is deeply troubling.

Richardson’s demand that students should engage with their homophobic professors and try to change their mind is problematic in a number of ways. Firstly, students do not attend university to spend their time trying to win their professors over to their viewpoint: they are there to learn. Why should a student, who is paying £9,000 a year in fees, have to waste their time having arguments with somebody about whether homophobia is wrong? Why are these views being expressed in the classroom, anyway?

Secondly, the demand that vulnerable or oppressed groups should have to ‘debate’ with people who do not recognise their right to exist or live as they choose is really very unpleasant. There are not two legitimate sides to the ‘debate’ about homophobia; in academia, we don’t continue to re-run arguments once one side has been comprehensively proven. It is inhumane to be told that you need to ‘debate’ with a ‘smart person’ about your own identity; the people involved on either side of this argument do not have the same things at stake.  

“How could a student really engage in debate with somebody who holds power over their marks, their exams, perhaps their final degree result?”

The demand that students should ‘debate’ with their professors is also laughable when you consider the power dynamics at work. How should a first year student be expected to feel confident or comfortable debating these sorts of issues with a senior member of academic staff? How could a student really engage in debate with somebody who holds power over their marks, their exams, perhaps their final degree result? There are bigger questions, too, about whether LGBT students could ever feel comfortable that their work was being assessed fairly by a homophobic tutor (and whether such staff should be allowed, for example, to sit on hiring committees or make funding awards).

Oxford University itself has a comprehensive harassment policy, which states that the university should ‘promote a positive environment in which people are treated with dignity and respect’. It goes on to detail the various responsibilities that those in positions of authority have to make sure that staff and students are free from harassment and bigotry. If I, as a member of staff at a university, approached my VC and told him that I was being made uncomfortable by a colleague’s racist, misogynistic or homophobic views, I would expect to be taken seriously. I would certainly not expect to be told that I should try to debate with that person or try to change their mind. Our students should be given the same respect.

In fact, I fundamentally disagree with Richardson’s understanding of what education is – because I actually do want to make my students feel comfortable. It is only when students feel comfortable, safe and supported in the classroom that they take intellectual risks and do their best work.

Charlotte Lydia Riley is a lecturer in twentieth century British history at the University of Southampton.