A note on Birkbeck’s response…

Lisa Tilley
3 min readSep 5, 2021

Birkbeck’s response to this resignation post is both inadequate and disingenuous. Students and staff in the Birkbeck community and beyond deserve much more serious and informed action from the College, which has ample expertise on race, racism and academic freedom within its own body of staff to draw on.

Firstly, Birkbeck places emphasis on the protection of legal speech. In the words of the College: “our Charter and Statutes guarantee academic freedom within the law, despite the painful and difficult choices to which this can lead” and “individual members of staff are free to express their personal views, provided they do so within the law”. Here, the College appears to conflate free speech (ie what is legal) with academic freedom (ie what corresponds to standards of academic integrity). Holocaust denial, for example, is legal in the UK (free speech) but factually and ethically wrong, as well as abhorrent, therefore cannot be covered by academic freedom.

The College needs to engage in more careful reflection over whether ‘incel’-aligned arguments criticising female students for not sleeping with Trump supporters; good faith engagements with white genocide conspiracy theory; Indigenous genocide denial; promotion of ‘white racial interest politics’; comparisons of Black protestors with cattle, and so on, are supported within the College’s definition of academic freedom.

As we have seen, the freedom to publish abhorrent statements is not matched by students’ freedom to openly object to those statements where an abusive far-right following is present and ever-ready to defend their chosen figurehead.

Secondly, simply telling yet another student cohort that they can complain again about the same problems through formal processes does not address the failings of those formal processes. I have shared evidence with managers of student complaints which have remained unanswered over these past years. The burden remains disproportionately on students of colour to go through the ordeal of complaining when the College already has evidence of the problem. Internal complaints processes almost appear as though they are set up to fail, while students complaining via social media (even those receiving death threats) are simply ignored for not using the ‘proper channels’.

Finally, referencing the “anger and anxiety” of those who “are diametrically opposed to the personal views and work of one of our staff” falls into the familiar trap of presenting the response to the problem as the problem itself, rather than dealing squarely with the problem of hate speech targeting people of colour and others in the Birkbeck community.

As a new cohort of students (the majority students of colour) prepare to begin their courses, the College can no longer rest on plausible deniability and repeat the same response to the same problems year after year. The action or inaction taken by the College has implications not only for the students Birkbeck has a direct duty of care towards, but for the UK higher education sector as a whole in terms of how academic freedom is defined and deployed.

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