Last November, the higher education minister, David Willetts, came to Cambridge to deliver a talk, in a series about ‘the idea of the university’ organised by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. But as he came to the lectern, a number of audience members (both students and academics) stood up and read, or performed, collectively, a poem articulating opposition to the policies he was advocating. They continued to read and repeat the poem until after a few minutes Willetts was ushered away and the lecture and question and answer session cancelled.
In the aftermath of this, and of the small occupation of the lecture theatre that followed it, one PhD student was singled out for reprisal by the university authorities, and made subject to the university’s disciplinary procedures. As earlymodernjohn asks in an eloquent blogpost today: ‘What is this singling out and rash punishing of one man other than scapegoating?’ And as he goes on to point out it is, actually, more: ‘It’s bullying.’
The scapegoating was widely felt to be unfair, and a letter signed by sixty dons and students advertising their own actual or implicit part in the protest was drafted and sent. This had no effect on the proceedings, and the hearing went ahead. Like everyone else, I expected that the student, Owen Holland, would be fined. The prosecution asked for a term’s suspension, or ‘rustication’. But a sense of outrage and disbelief unparalleled in my experience spread through the university today as it became known that the court had imposed a sentence of seven terms rustication which, as earlymodernjohn points out, is almost the whole period of PhD study.
I have to declare an interest at this point, as I’m Owen Holland’s second supervisor, and want very much to read the work he is currently doing and which this sentence is cruelly designed to abort. But my anger, like everyone’s, is directed not only at the absurd and destructive disproportion of the sentence, but at the way it uses bureaucratic authority to punish effective dissent. As earlymodernjohn says:
In representing Cambridge, the Court of Discipline hasn’t just misunderstood protest, or free speech: it’s forgotten what a university is supposed to be. For shame.
Milton and Dryden were both rusticated from Cambridge, it’s true, for quarrelling with college authorities, and Swinburne from Oxford for speaking in support of an attempt to assassinate Napoleon III, but I don’t think anyone has previously been punished in this way for reading a poem.