Cambridge cracks down

Ian Patterson

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.


  • 16 March 2012 at 8:03am
    Phil Edwards says:
    What happened was a bit more than "reading a poem", and I'm not convinced "free speech" covers it either. Call it what it was - disruption of Willetts's address by force of numbers.

    This isn't to support the university - singling out one participant is classic bullying tactics, and seven terms is brutally excessive. Anything we can sign?

    • 16 March 2012 at 9:11am
      James Purdon says: @ Phil Edwards
      There are two online petitions.

      This one is for those currently affiliated with the University of Cambridge:

      And this one is for alumni/ae and others:

    • 18 March 2012 at 5:24pm
      ander says: @ James Purdon
      Thanks for the pointers to the petitions. Another petition, however, is in order, one calling for permanent rustication of the University apparatchiks responsible for this oppression.

  • 16 March 2012 at 8:23am
    streetsj says:
    is "scapegoating" eloquent?
    is stopping an invited guest speaking "free speech"?

  • 16 March 2012 at 8:40am
    Michael Bywater says:
    Disruption by force of numbers is no more than politicians do all the time. Sometimes it's called "filibustering". Sometimes it's called "government". Mr Willets has more meddlesome and/or legislative friends than the University has. The University has, thank god, more poets.

    What's odd is not the singling out of Mr Holland. That's only to be expected from an insitution contorting itself, out of necessity, to maneouvre its tongue up the bottom of a government as practices at deft wriggling as any bar-top stripper. What's odd is multiplying the punishment asked for by the prosecutor sevenfold. Something oddly Biblical -- I mean "Biblical" as in Old Testament: vengeful, disproportionate, infantile, ignorant, credulous, authoritarian, sociopathic and scared witless of higher powers -- about the number. But I can't be bothered to check. The Court of Discipline have behaved like thugs. Next time Mr Willetts comes to call, let's get *them* to do the protest. He'll be really buggered then.

  • 16 March 2012 at 8:42am
    Michael Bywater says:
    *"practised", not "practices". I apologise, and have rusticated myself even unto the seventh generation.

  • 16 March 2012 at 9:18am
    Alfalfa says:
    Very much in two minds about this. Disrupting an invited guest seems to me to be the opposite of free speech - at least hear the man out - and derives its justification from a sense of the justness of one's own cause which may well be unfounded (however much I share it in this instance). In mitigation, Mr Willetts was speaking not as a private individual, but as a member of government. Whilst I believe in civilized discourse, I think its rules can be relaxed when speaking to power. Civilized discourse is practised among equals, but the asymmetry of power is such that I don't feel altogether sorry for Mr Willetts. Still, some discomfort remains.

    The university's reaction is, in any case, excessive. It should have given Mr Holland a slap on the wrist and affirmed its belief in polite discourse and the legitimate space for protest whilst distancing itself from the form it took here.

    • 16 March 2012 at 9:59am
      Michael Bywater says: @ Alfalfa
      @Alfalfa: I'd suggest that for the rules of polite discourse to be activated, the discourse in question must at the very minimum be a "full duplex" system. In other words, I'll listen to you if you listen to me.

      Politicians generally don't see it like that. When they talk of "free speech" one often feels they mean "compulsory listening".

      Mr Willetts, and the government he represented on the occasion complained of, have shown repeatedly that they have no interest in listening. They can't even use the word without tagging the word "exercise" onto the end, just to show they don't mean it.

      So I see no reason to extend an unreciprocated courtesy to them. They have enough channels of communication already, surely; particularly when he came to Cambridge not to listen, but, of course, to speak.

    • 16 March 2012 at 1:19pm
      Phil Edwards says: @ Michael Bywater
      I've just signed the iPetitions petition James mentioned and would urge others to do so.

      I think there are three (if not more) separate questions here, only one of which has a clear answer. Is the university's reaction just or proportionate? Absolutely not - it's an outrageous exercise in victimisation and intimidation. Was the dirsuption of Willetts's talk justified? I'm not sure, but I don't think it's up to me to judge - to me it's a tactical question, for the movement itself and its constituents to decide. Lastly, was the protest itself a communicative act, 'reading a poem' or exercising 'free speech'? Like the blogger I linked to above, I tend to think not - its relationship to speech was more negative (it was certainly an ostentatious refusal of any possible dialogue). This doesn't mean it was a bad thing, just that it needs to be defended in different terms.s

  • 16 March 2012 at 10:11pm
    Oriole says:
    The punishment was excessive and its selectivity unfair. But the protestors went too far, too. They imposed their judgment, that Mr. Willetts was not worth hearing, on the other members of the audience, some of whom presumably came to hear Mr. Willetts. Short interruptions of this type are tolerable, but the continued repetition of the poem, which eventually achieved its apparent aim of preventing Mr. Willetts from speaking or being heard, was a bit of, well, intellectual thuggery. I'm with J.S. Mill on the value of opposing opinions: let's hear them when they are offered gratis, and seek them out when they are not on offer.

  • 17 March 2012 at 10:45am
    kevinbrazil says:
    That the punishment handed down on Holland is intended to have have a chilling effect of protest in Cambridge is undeniable; but like Alfalfa and Oriole, I was uncomfortable with the idea of shutting down Willetts speech. However, in a recent interview with Oxford Today (see transcript especially) Willetts hardly seems interested in a free and fair debate...

  • 17 March 2012 at 2:54pm
    Lara Buckerton says:
    There is an interesting little pamphlet about the free speech question -- if it is a question - which came out just after Willetts was prevented from adding this particular platform to his collection: (a PDF)

    The text is taken from this thread:


  • 17 March 2012 at 11:54pm
    Orestes says:
    Further to the pamphlet which is now held in digital aspic, readers may also wish to hear the arguments put forward by Raymond Geuss. He addressed those students who had occupied the lecture theatre in which Willetts had been scheduled to speak. His lecture on 'free speech' is available here:

  • 18 March 2012 at 3:20pm
    Gazza says:
    The argument made by 'Dr N' in the pamphlet linked above demonstrates a lot that's wrong with the debate. It's not a trivial thing that his tone is so obnoxious and condescending, because that only reinforces the suspicion that the protesters represent only a snobbish elite defending its privileges.

    More than that, he seems to share the naive belief he attributes to his antagonist: that the point of public debate is simply to persuade one's opponent. In fact, the event was an opportunity to strengthen the case against Willetts' reforms among the students themselves, and not only those unsure about the issue, but those already campaigning to 'defend education' while struggling to make a case that goes beyond immediate self-interest.

    The case for higher education as a public good is not self-evident, and acting as if is can only be counterproductive. An intellectually serious intervention at the Willetts event, following meetings to discuss and clarify the arguments, might have done much to change the tenor of the debate and bolster the confidence of campaigners. What happened instead left Willetts with the moral high ground and gave the impression that the campaign against his reforms is intellectually bankrupt as well as doomed to failure.

    • 29 March 2012 at 9:13am
      streetsj says: @ Gazza
      couldn't agree more.Dr N's self importance was gag-inducing.

  • 21 March 2012 at 2:12pm
    Georg says:
    Some of the sloppy arguments citing Willetts' 'freedom of speech' are refuted, and the institutional background to this persecution explained, here:

  • 27 March 2012 at 1:36pm
    AitchGee says:
    Presumably the reason the University have behaved with one hand heavy and the other be-cacked is that they have some vain hope that this sort of dully obvious symbolism will play well with Mr Willetts and his under-brained friends in Westminster. Assuming that the last Cambridge history department hasn't yet been turned into a Business Skool, someone in the upper echelons of admin. might want to ask someone therein about the policy of paying 'Danegeld'. It didn't end well.

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