University Chancellor Chris Patten has attracted controversy after writing an article in Project Syndicate entitled ‘The Closing of the Academic Mind,’ which criticises safe spaces and implicitly compares the actions of the Rhodes Must Fall movement with suppression of free speech by the Chinese government.
Patten argues, “In the United States and the United Kingdom, some students and teachers now seek to constrain argument and debate. They contend that people should not be exposed to ideas with which they strongly disagree.”
He adds, “Some people are being denied the chance to speak [by] so-called ‘no platforming’”, which he calls the “awful jargon of some clearly not very literate campuses.” He also identifies safe spaces for students as “an oxymoron in an academic setting.”
He further comments, “Thomas Jefferson and Cecil Rhodes, among others, have been targeted” and that some activists think “history should be rewritten to expunge the names (through not the endowments) of those who fail to pass today’s test of political correctness.
“Western students should think occasionally about their counterparts in Hong Kong and China who must fight for freedoms that they take for granted – and too often abuse,” he adds.
Yussef Robinson, the BME officer for St Hilda’s College JCR and an active member of the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign, told Cherwell, “For Chris Patten to compare RMFO activists in Oxford to assaults on academic freedom and freedom of speech is disgusting.”
Robinson added, “Patten joins a long line of people who have responded to our calls for interrogation of Oxford and Britain’s imperial heritage with smears. We perfectly reasonably state the statue should be in a museum, imperialism should be better taught, and the faculty should include more students of colour.
“Patten shouts down that we are totalitarian. Yet he fails to target the British state’s ongoing assault on academic freedom. Prevent legislation for him appears conducive to debate, while our engagement in literal debate is a threat to freedom. Perhaps he is afraid to criticise anyone in Britain more influential than students. “I extend our [RMF’s] invitation for Patten to attend a general assembly, or participate in a debate against us. Yet I feel he would rather smear students at the University where he is Chancellor than actually have to speak to us.”
RMFO is holding a General Assembly today for the organisation of RMF’s next action, which will be a protest march on International Women’s Day, 8th March.
Other students have taken issue with Patten’s statement that “I would wager that I have been Chancellor of more universities than anyone alive today” because he was Governor of Hong Kong from 1992-1997, which meant he was Chancellor of every University in the city. This, he argues, is why he has, “Strong views about what it means to be a university and to teach, do research, or study at one.”
President of OUSU Becky Howe told Cherwell, “As a former governor of a territory of the British Empire, the Chancellor clearly has more experience of colonialism than I do. However, his repeated comments about Rhodes Must Fall suggest that he has completely ignored the seven campaigning priorities of the movement. This is not just about a statue; it’s about institutionalised racism and our response to it as an institution.”
But Jacob Williams, founder of Facebook discussion group Open Oxford and a free speech campaigner, said, “Whilst the comparison is hyperbole, the Chancellor is right to point out worrying similarities. Chinese officials censor ideas in the name of Marxist ideology, because they don’t accept that people can legitimately disagree with it. British students are doing the same thing with their own ideal of liberation from structural oppression. What one person calls structural oppression another calls a just social order.”
The University of Oxford Press Office declined Cherwell’s request for comment.