21 June 2021

Fightback on campus: more academics should follow Neil Thin’s example


It’s discouraging that a muscular defence of free speech in education has often been lacking in schools and universities, the very institutions which most advertise their commitment to it.

Even more discouragingly, rather than fighting back, the victims are wont to collapse into guilt-ridden confessions, studded with hollow platitudes about ‘deep regret’ and ‘recognising the pain caused’ by ‘offensive and hurtful remarks’.

But some, thank goodness, do fight back.

Will Knowland, latterly an English teacher at Eton, had posted a lecture for a course called ‘C Perspectives’, designed to stimulate debate around a series of often clashing ideas. In his November 2020 essay on the subject of the ‘Patriarchy Paradox, Knowland defended masculinity, the genetic differences between men and women, and the alarming thesis that women don’t always prefer a man-less world. Eton;s headmaster, Simon Henderson, demanded the essay be removed from Knowland’s personal YouTube channel: on Knowland’s refusal on free speech grounds, he was fired. Knowland has refused to go quietly, though, and is taking the school to an employment tribunal.

Still more encouraging is the present case of Dr Neil Thin, a Senior Anthropology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh. Earlier this year, Thin was the subject of a series of accusations from students, who variously accused him of racism, sexism, micro-aggressions, transphobia and, in at least one case, marking down essays which mentioned ideas on “colonialism and white saviourism”.

The complaints, covered in great detail by the national student newspaper The Tab, also include claims that Thin is a “men’s rights activist” and that he commented that one student’s essay was “too woman-focused, what about men? Men are hardly ever the topic of academic discovery, feminism is overdone’”.

A member of BlackEd, a black students’ group in the university, wrote on Instagram that “all the People of Colour students, including us, separately sit in one corner while we watch the rest of the class and lecturer debate on sensitive topics like decolonisation from such a skewed western narrative, often playing devil’s advocate, and holding zero sensitivity and respect to personal experiences of minority groups”.

Dr Thin was suspended for some weeks while these claims were investigated: in June, these were dismissed, but so too were Thin’s own complaints about the students who had accused him with such vigour. Though cleared, he has refused to resume teaching: he told The Scotsman that

“I have told them it is not something they can realistically ask me to do when they haven’t challenged the students who have destroyed my reputation through online attacks. They cannot expect me to go back among the same people with no attempt at mediation, no challenge, no telling them off, no use of the university’s social media and equality and diversity policies…The message the university is sending out is that the students can do exactly what they like and we are too scared to challenge them. That’s a terrible way of educating students.”

Sir Tom Devine, the most celebrated of Scotland’s historians – whose last post was in Edinburgh’s history department as holder of the Fraser Chair of Scottish History – has taken a close and militant interest in Thin’s case, as he did with the decision last year to remove David Hume’s name from the Hume Tower.  In a recent article in The Spectator, he quoted from several Edinburgh academics he had spoken to, noting that “not one was willing to risk being names for fear of a backlash from students”.

The comments included:

“This failure to hold them (students) to account can mean only that the university authorities are too fearful of challenging some student activists who now seem beyond control”

 “Most colleagues tackle controversial topics in their teaching and research. Many now feel constrained what they can say for fear of “offending” with their views and so triggering online abuse’; 

“Black Ed…have organised a deliberate and targeted assassination (of Dr Thin)”

“Edinburgh’s top-down, authoritarian structures have already led to feelings of alienation and exclusion among both staff and students. Staff surveys confirm that confidence in management is not much above zero and the National Student Survey results have long been woeful. Recently, however, things have taken a sinister turn. Academic colleagues no longer feel merely oppressed and demoralised but now also threatened and intimidated”.

Some of the anonymous criticism – and that from Sir Tom himself in an interview with me last month – is aimed at the University’s Vice Chancellor, Professor Peter Mathieson. He is held to be too accommodating to students’ demands to punish anyone who makes comments deemed “hurtful” to students, for whatever reason. From that perspective, Thin’s public objections to the removal of Hume’s name, and to a gathering which discussed the adverse effects of ‘whiteness’ while barring all whites from it, cannot be tolerated.

It’s worth noting, in this connection, that one of the instances the complainants cite to justify their horror at his teaching was this February 4 tweet.

But it’s unarguable that followers of Black Lives Matter, and adherents to Critical Race Theory, do see people of colour as the victims of whites – both historically and in the present. In a recent example Orpheus Williams, Head of Equity Programming at KIPP, America’s largest public charter school network, demanded successfully that KIPP drop its slogan – ‘Work hard. Be nice’ because it “passively supports on-going efforts to pacify and control Black and Brown bodies in order to better condition them to be compliant and further reproduce current social norms that centre whiteness and meritocracy as normal”.

As in most such debates, history and the present are merged into one. In Edinburgh, David Hume (who, ironically, was denied a chair at the University in 1745, because he was seen – rightly – as deeply sceptical of the existence of a supreme being) also lost his position on the unlovely 1960s tower in the heart of the university. His views were certainly racist (‘there never was a civilised nation of any other complexion than white’ in his essay ‘On National Characters’); but, as Tom Devine said in our discussion: “Don’t judge the past by the values of the present. It’s the first law (of historical scholarship)”.

The still unresolved Thin affair is about more than the equivocations of one university. As Professor Thin has explained, understanding and open debate are imperative to creating the “socially harmonious post-racial future” which he embraces, but which is so conspicuously absent from the university’s policies and statements on racism. Such a belief is, of course, anathema to those who see whiteness as all-suppressing, and who gain prominence and position by so doing. That the leadership of Edinburgh University, one of the UK’s finest institutions, lacks the conviction to endorse that vision is more than discouraging; it damages not just its reputation, but its scholarly authority.

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John Lloyd is a Contributing Editor to the Financial Times, ex-editor of The New Statesman and a co-founder of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.