Oxford University installed its first female vice-chancellor this week, Louise Richardson, who boldly stressed the importance of free speech and critical thinking at university amid roiling student protests.
Addressing students for the first time in her new role, Richardson urged them to be open-minded and tolerant; and to engage in debate rather than censorship, alluding to countless calls from students at Oxford and other universities across the U.K. to ban potentially offensive speakers and rename or remove historical monuments.
“How do we ensure that we educate our students both to embrace complexity and retain conviction?” she asked. “How do we ensure that they appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own? How do we ensure that our students understand the true nature of freedom of inquiry and expression?”
Richardson’s installment comes as students at Oxford’s Oriel College campaign to dismantle a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist who endowed the Rhodes Scholarship.
They claim the monument glorifies a man who was “the Hitler of South Africa” and speaks to “the size and strength of Britain’s imperial blind spot.”
Richardson stood by the university’s chancellor, Lord Patten of Barnes, as he referenced the statue debate, reminding students that history cannot be rewritten “according to our contemporary views and prejudices.” He, too, was forthright in his criticism of speech codes and calls for “no-platforming” controversial speakers.
On both sides of the Atlantic, the past year has seen a growing movement of almost tyrannical student leaders fight for censorship for the sake of progressivism and tolerance of minorities.
These campaigners seem too blinded by identity politics to recognize that their progressive ideology is often profoundly intolerant.
Unlike the present tone of the Oxford academic leadership, university leaders in the U.S. have frequently cowed to student demands and demonstrations.
School presidents have been silenced by outraged students in meetings. They’ve rushed to meet demands to, among other things, “abolish the title ‘master.’” They’ve launched $100 million initiatives in response to protests.
Last fall, University of Missouri’s president, Tom Wolfe, resigned amid protests claiming systemic racism at the school; Claremont McKenna’s dean of students resigned after students attacked her for not being sensitive enough to the plight of minorities at the California college.
Meanwhile, Oxford is listening to student concerns, but also reinforcing ideals that are crucial to any democracy: freedom of speech and tolerance on all sides.
Instead, university administrators in the U.S. don’t dare speak up about First Amendment rights. They don’t dare stress that college is a place where students are meant to challenge and debate controversial opinions, rather than be shielded from them in designated “safe spaces.”
At Oxford, Barnes firmly stated that because “we value tolerance,” the school has listened to and, in some cases, heeded calls for censorship (the university recently agreed to move a plaque dedicated to Cecil Rhodes).
“[But] one thing we should never tolerate is intolerance,” he said. “We do not want to turn our universities into drab, bland suburbs of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge.”
As long as school leaders in the U.S. are content walking on eggshells and answering to the whims of every student revolutionary, they run the risk of doling out “intellectual porridge” to students—a bland, watered-down academic regime that certainly won’t sustain them in the real world.