Speaking at the Times Higher Education Summit, Oxford University’s vice-chancellor Louise Richardson spoke about encountering students who feel uncomfortable being in a class with professors who express homophobic views. The answer for them, she said, was to engage with those views and challenge them.
Richardson claimed: “If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure [out] 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.”
If it isn’t immediately obvious why such a sentiment is problematic, I will spell it out. In essence, what Richardson is saying is that in place of understandable outrage, students should grit their teeth and interrogate the intellectual validity of homophobia. There is no such validity. The identities of those who form part of the LGBT+ community are not up for debate and it is not for anyone other than the individuals themselves to analyse their lived experience.
The sort of invalidation which is implicit in Richardson’s comments isn’t just offensive, it’s dangerous. A recent study found that 40% of transgender people have attempted suicide and research by the LGBT foundation found that those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to suffer depression. Oxford has one of the largest LGBT+ communities in Britain and therefore, shouldn’t the Vice Chancellor’s emphasis be on ensuring an inclusive learning environment in which all, regardless of their sexual orientation, are able to thrive?
Of course, we will all, at some point, encounter academic discomfort or a sense of intellectual inferiority at an elite university. But there is an important distinction between a tutor publicly dissecting and criticising one’s ideas and the same tutor promulgating homophobic bigotry. The former is an uncomfortable experience, but one which can be said to promote intellectual rigour, and the latter is prejudice, plain and simple.
Richardson is suggesting that instead of seeing such behaviour as offensive or intimidating, we should all have a long hard think about why clever people can also be homophobes, that maybe after racking our brains we will come to another conclusion other than the obvious: that such people are small-minded and discriminatory and have no place in positions of power in our institutions. Moreover, tutors and professors have agreed to undertake not only an academic role but a pastoral one, which ideally should ensure the safety of students of all backgrounds and identities.
Finally, one struggles to see how such a debate could be fruitful. Even if a student could summon the wherewithal to argue such sensitive matters with their professor, doing so would be counter-intuitive. The professor will, more often than not, be 30 years their senior and hold sway over their marks, their references and perhaps even their final degree result. The odds are stacked against students before they even open their mouths.
Richardson’s comments demonstrate a worrying lack of understanding, and show that she is apparently oblivious to the power dynamic which exists within an educational context. We should all be concerned by her remarks. To paraphrase one student’s remarks on a public forum: homophobia is not, and never will be, a valid intellectual position.
There is an open letter to the Vice Chancellor and Senior Staff which can be signed here if you would like to denounce her comments.