Louise Richardson, the Oxford vice-chancellor, has come under fire from Oxford Students Union (SU) for comments regarding homophobia at the University.
Richardson, who also attacked “tawdry politicians” for the handling of the dispute around her pay level, suggested that students cannot be offended on University campuses.
Speaking at the Times Higher Education summit, Richardson said: “I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don’t feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.
“And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable’.
“If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.
“Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do.”
The Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign has today criticised her comments saying that they were “angered and dismayed” by the remarks.
Mentioning the high levels of discrimination that LGBTQ+ individuals can suffer at university, and within the country, they accused the vice-chancellor of “furthering an environment which makes LGBTQ+ people feel more unwelcome in Oxford.”
They added that while they “recognise that individuals are entitled to personal views and opinions, we see no way in which these are relevant to an academic context, and believe that the expression of such views has detrimental effects which go far beyond making students feel ‘uncomfortable’.
“This is hardly the conduct one would expect in an individual, tasked with ensuring that all members of this University are able to thrive. These attitudes are a failure to recognise the very real impact of homophobic views on both academic success and personal well being, and we hope that she, and others, will consider the issue with more nuance in future.”
The vice-chancellor’s comments have sparked considerable debate online, with many students and JCRs expressing outrage.
In an open letter to the vice-chancellor, Wadham SU said her comments could “legitimise and normalise homophobia from academics and staff.”
It added: “We believe such a comment sends a bad message to LGBTQ+ students, and all students who have faced harassment and discrimination.
“Moreover, the comments made will discourage students from approaching their senior tutor in college when faced with discrimination from tutors, something that we already struggle to encourage students to do.
“Of course we want to encourage free speech and open discussion but to put the burden of challenging homophobic viewpoints on LGBTQ+ students is unfair and dangerous to the mental well being of those students.”
Hertford College JCR, in an open letter to Vice-Chancellor Richardson, said her comments were “of considerable concern to us, as we are of the view that homophobia has no place in Oxford or indeed our wider society.
“Although we do agree with the right to free speech, and acknowledge and celebrate the diversity of views expressed by those at the University, we want to make it clear that we feel there is a point at which ‘uncomfortable’ comments become hateful language.
“We must therefore wholeheartedly reject any notion that views against homosexuality have acceptable grounds within academic conversation.”
Oxford SU took a similar approach, offering advice to those who had been impacted by the comments.
— Oxford SU (@OxfordStudents) September 4, 2017
Student Union President, Kate Cole, was more explicit in her criticism of the statement.
PS. It's 2017. Homophobia is always, has always been and will always be wrong. Stop defending hate and start fighting against injustice.
— Kate Cole (@OxfordSU_Pres) September 4, 2017
Richardson also drew criticism from those outside of Oxford with Dawn Foster, a Guardian columnist, and Charlotte L. Riley, a historian at the University of Southampton, both attacking the comments.
Oxford VCs comments, as w/ similar comments on hate, rely on assumption hate can be 'beaten by argument' & so is valid intellectual position
— Dawn Foster (@DawnHFoster) September 4, 2017
I am SO angry about this. We all know academia can be a nasty, bigoted little world sometimes. But we're supposed to be trying to change it.
— Charlotte L. Riley (@lottelydia) September 4, 2017
An open letter addressed to the vice chancellor has been launched.