Durham's intolerance of free speech like Maoist China

Going to Durham was such a proud moment, writes first year law student SAMANTHA SMITH, so how sad to discover its intolerance of free speech is like Maoist China

Last week, one of my lecturers at Durham University held a Christmas Quiz. It was intended as a bit of light relief at the end of term, but predictably turned into yet another exercise in woke self-laceration.

‘Tell me something controversial about the following . . .’ the lecturer said. Among the topics were Durham Cathedral, the university’s Oriental Museum and our venerable seat of learning itself.

Some students, knowing what was expected, duly obliged, lobbing in buzz words such as ‘elitist’, ‘colonialist’ and ‘classist’.

My lecturer laughed approvingly — these were clearly the correct answers — and rewarded them with a chocolate.

But then I suggested something I genuinely believe to be controversial: how the president of Durham Students’ Union, Seun Twins, was in my opinion never properly elected. In fact, more people voted in favour of reopening nominations than actually voted for her.

Her name may be familiar to some readers. Ms Twins was making headlines last week in the aftermath of the Rod Liddle affair.

She backed calls for the resignation of the head of the Durham college who’d invited the journalist to speak at a student dinner and which prompted a walkout of students.

My lecturer’s response to my answer? ‘No comment’ — though I was offered a chocolate.

Outraged: Students protest Rod Liddle’s speech

This refusal to discuss contentious issues is typical of a university that has morphed from a bastion of academic excellence and self-proclaimed champion of free speech (check out the university website) into an institution utterly in hock to hard-Left ideology.

It comes with the kind of intolerance for dissent that is more reminiscent of Maoist China than a leading establishment of higher education in a Western democracy.

I am 19 and being accepted at Durham was the proudest moment of my life.

Despite the odds being stacked against me — a disadvantaged background and an ‘A-Level algorithm’ that threatened to derail the grades I’d worked so hard to achieve through lockdowns and online teaching — I secured a place at this institution to study law.

That is why I feel so saddened as I watch its ceaseless attempts to appease a vocal Left-wing minority. And it is a minority.

This refusal to discuss contentious issues is typical of a university that has morphed from a bastion of academic excellence and self-proclaimed champion of free speech (check out the university website) into an institution utterly in hock to hard-Left ideology

I am a member of the Conservative Party which is unusual for a student. However, I’ve never felt any real opprobrium from fellow students. Almost all those I meet happily find common ground and form friendships across political divides rather than shunning those with whom they disagree.

The problem is many of the university’s staff and in particular its Students’ Union.

Earlier this month, I wrote in the Mail about lecturers at Durham and other universities striking yet again over pay and pensions, and putting their agendas ahead of their obligations to their paying students whose life chances have already been hit by the pandemic.

Now, once again, that group-think approach is putting the career of a respected academic, Professor Tim Luckhurst, at peril.

As the Mail On Sunday reported, the heads of at least 13 of Durham’s 17 colleges, along with other professors and heads of departments, have thrown their weight behind last week’s protests at Rod Liddle’s speech at South College.

Earlier this month, I wrote in the Mail about lecturers at Durham and other universities striking yet again over pay and pensions, and putting their agendas ahead of their obligations to their paying students whose life chances have already been hit by the pandemic

On Saturday, this paper published a transcript of the ‘offending’ section — which many would argue was a defence of free speech and a condemnation of intolerance to the views of others.

Of course, protesters have every right to express their beliefs but how can any university or its staff preside over a system in which any view outside of a prescribed woke narrative is shut down?

It’s as if they have never heard of ‘free speech’ let alone defended it. (Incidentally, as Guy Adams explained in this newspaper, many of those who walked out of the dinner didn’t hear Liddle speak but objected to his mere presence.)

As the row escalated, out of a student body of some 20,000, protesters outside the college were only in their dozens. Yet I have received emails from my head of department and college condemning the speech, mostly for how it covered trans issues, with quotes such as ‘I deplore the intolerant and hurtful remarks attributed to the speaker,’ and ‘we stand against hate and discrimination of any kind’.

And this is playing out across the university.

Despite sanctioning Professor Luckhurst to invite Liddle, the university then placed him under investigation and barred him from duties. Last week, students were sent an email from the Vice Chancellor reiterating his commitment to making Durham a ‘safe place’.

Despite sanctioning Professor Luckhurst to invite Liddle, the university then placed him under investigation and barred him from duties

He wrote: ‘Staff, students, alumni and other stakeholders are struggling to comprehend how a college [dinner] . . . could have caused so much distress and upset.’

Well, quite — or comprehend just how blatantly one-sided in its response the university has been.

The truth is this supine knee-bending to the diktats of the woke brigade is typical of Durham now.

For me, it all began at matriculation in October — a supposedly jolly ceremony during Freshers’ Week in which new students are formally accepted. But soon enough, Seun Twins was haranguing us about ‘decolonising’ Durham and ‘elitism’.

I came to Durham to study the law and learn from experts — not digest speeches on social justice from a Jeremy Corbyn devotee.

I was clearly naive to imagine the Students’ Union would represent all students — a remit for which it receives £759,000 a year. It doesn’t and has no intention of doing so.

I came to Durham to study the law and learn from experts — not digest speeches on social justice from a Jeremy Corbyn devotee

Last year, it threatened to withdraw funding for the print edition of Palatinate — the student newspaper on which journalists Jeremy Vine and George Alagiah cut their teeth — which really does promote free speech and reports fairly on the Students’ Union rather than acting as its mouthpiece.

Another free speech institution here is the Durham Union Society, a debating forum renowned for the range of its invited speakers. But they were barred from the annual Freshers’ Fair this year as they were deemed not woke enough.

And if it’s not busy ‘decolonialising’ the curriculum, Durham is pre-occupied with other absurd initiatives, such as their ‘student sex worker training’ classes. Last month, a Zoom class entitled ‘Training Opportunity: Students Involved In The Adult Sex Industry’ explored ‘the challenges student sex workers can face’.

Academics miss no opportunity to shoe-horn Left-wing ideology into lectures, either. I’ve heard from students of endless diatribes about capitalism and the Tories. Many fear that if they challenge or disagree they will be penalised.

The university also publicises courses on topics such as ‘unconscious bias’. It seems everywhere we look we are encouraged to take offence and find moral outrage.

Last year, it threatened to withdraw funding for the print edition of Palatinate — the student newspaper on which journalists Jeremy Vine and George Alagiah cut their teeth — which really does promote free speech and reports fairly on the Students’ Union rather than acting as its mouthpiece

Speaking as someone who is mixed-race, while I have experienced racial abuse, I’ve never felt it was the fault of my school or university but only of the bigoted individuals. Incidentally, I have yet to meet a student who has signed up for these classes.

Yet, the university remains obsessed with offering ‘safe spaces’ to anyone who feels victimised by whatever trend is doing the rounds. And while they fixate over micro-issues such as gender-neutral toilets (single-sex loos enforced a ‘false . . . gender binary’ apparently), they are doing little to improve our everyday lives and future prospects — as evidenced by the strikes earlier this month.

It is time universities remember what their job is — and it is not to indoctrinate us in woke ideology, or convince us of our hapless victim status, but to provide a world-class education to their fee-paying students who want to get out into the world, make something of themselves and contribute to society.

To give us the tools to make the world a better place — not sit and cry about our ‘wounds’.

  • Samantha Smith is a first-year law student at Durham University and commentator.


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