Oxbridge and the Revenge of Politics: How the Left Captured the Universities
“The long march through the institutions” was coined by Communist Rudi Dutschke in 1967 to describe his plan to subvert institutions deemed inimical to his bright socialist future. Thanks to its stubborn commitment to academic excellence, Oxbridge has long resisted notions of positive discrimination that risked hollowing out merit so politicised definitions of ἀρετή could enter. Over the last decade, however, this position has crumbled, and – just as state capture has overtaken South Africa – so Oxbridge’s curtain-wall has fallen to new political orthodoxies.
Some might argue this is merely a reversion to type. The two universities may have occasionally thrown up great thinkers, but in an accidental manner (thanks to its absorption of national elites rather than a quixotic commitment to erudition). In short, Oxbridge has propounded the political orthodoxies of every period – even down to history’s most fickle episodes (the martyr’s mark, for instance, shows where the Protestant bishops Ridley, Latimer and Cranmer were burned alive in the Marian persecution). Indeed, it remained a place “sunk in port and prejudices” according to Edward Gibbon (d. 1794) who also accused his (Magdalen) tutors of being safe and lazy in their sinecures.
The post-war period, however, dismantled many of these ideological markers so that academia – at least in theory – was stamped with a devotion to “free inquiry,” learning unimpeded by prescriptive politics (at least in its most naked forms). This consensus is now fraying rapidly in face of new dogmatic commitments, discrimination of an advanced variety and novel forms of censorship.
The Ruskin School of Art (Oxford) is a particularly polarised faculty in openly refusing to appoint folk who don’t fit their platonic mould of a ‘diverse’ candidate. Those who busy themselves accruing the qualifications and gongs typically expected to progress along the academic cursus honorum are jettisoned in favour of those who tick the correct identity boxes. ‘Correct’, being code for not belonging to categories designated historically privileged, an existential faux-pas that risks attracting real-time prejudice in the name of ‘social justice’. Furthermore, appointments are just the tip of the iceberg, the same attitude runs beneath the sea-line to prizes, grants, etc.
Colleges and faculties now emblazon their websites with anti-racism declarations in the same way football fans get tattooed with their team’s emblems. Ruskin’s example here can serve for them all. Sadly, what is often ostensibly fair is deployed as little more than a partisan key to force the inner sanctum where syllabuses, incentives and curricula can be rejigged (‘diversified’) to reflect ‘the ideology’. This occurred at the music faculty recently, which opportunistically used the Black Lives Matter controversy to “introduce with immediate effect changes to the curriculum.” Indeed, while it’s easy to get the superficial impression that the movement truly loves immigrants or is ‘concerned’ about racism, in reality its approach to both is entirely instrumental: they form sticks to bash institutions into submission. It is not hard to fathom that events such as this, as well as this reading group for masters students, distill and instill ideological stances as intellectual orthodoxies.
Perhaps no woman encapsulates this stance of “ideological purity as intellectual orthodoxy” more clearly than the inimitable Priyamvada Gopal – who is brahmanical in more ways than one. Routinely articulating the internal logic of the leftist position (such as “White lives don’t matter” and “Abolish Whiteness”) in Cambridge, she is only outrageous because she dares to make explicit what tends to be left tacit, encrypted, implicit.
While the censorious Gopal was promoted from a Churchill fellow in postcolonial literature to professor in the Summer of 2020 for her gaucheness, Noah Carl was sacked from a research position (with the master of St Edmund’s performing a modern form of public contrition by “apologising unreservedly” for hiring him) after complaints were made about his alleged “collaboration with far-right extremists.” Again, code for possessing data that could be used by political dissidents to further their arguments – sending out a strong signal that students must reverse-engineer their research to avoid such pitfalls.
As the breadth of the assault widens, even those who can plead innocent on old heresies (conservative views on abortion, homosexuality, etc.) will eventually fall guilty of holding ‘anachronistic’ beliefs. In late 2018, Michael Biggs, associate prof. of sociology at St Cross College (Oxford), suffered a storm of harassment after declaring that “transphobia is a word created by fascists and used by cowards to manipulate morons.”
When other academics took offence, the dynamics became clearer: heretical views held by the laity could be safely ignored or disparaged as non-specialist or non-expert. But when those who spoke from a rostrum of authority shared the same opinion, it became “concerning.” In Biggs’ case because he, as Dr. Clara Barker says, “spoke very publicly as an expert.” The subtext being that he should be disciplined and/or sacked – a position left as implicit so that layers of deniability (i.e. cowardice) can be maintained in order to allow for backtracking should volatile politics try to claim the aggressor’s scalp.
Those who fail to read between the lines of this discourse (or simply possess the courage of their own convictions) are punished – as a last resort – in a cruder manner, namely the threat of intimidation and violence. As the history prof. Selina Todd (St Hilda’s, Oxford) found to her cost in January last year when she declared the need for single-sex refuges in society, free from those who identify as female despite being anatomically male. A view that social justice warriors deemed worthy of being “hit in the face” – presumably the sort of violence professor sought to avoid by keeping those spaces.
That political orthodoxies have been covertly dissolved into Oxbridge’s intellectual fabric could not be made plainer than by its membership of the Stonewall Champions Programme. Forensically dissected by the barrister Naomi Cunningham, Stonewall has devised an intricate system whereby Oxford pays roughly £3,000 per year to submit to an annual audit (Workplace Equality Index) that fills almost four hundred pages. Some of its latest policy recommendations includes rectifying “gendered language used in the maternity policy” and ignoring the legal criterion of sexual orientation (namely sex) to define it as “a person’s emotional, romantic attraction to another person.”
Expanding on what makes a good role model, Stonewall clarifies that what matters is the person’s identity rather than their individual achievements. As the ideology’s best defence is an offense, the pressure group now recommends the creation of the LGBTQ+ “allies.” This means the university now pays £6,000 for the company to train “allies” who visibly signal their commitment to the LGBTQ+ cause by means of email signatures, badges, lanyards and mugs.
Talking of institutional capture, Worcester College’s provost is the former chairman of Stonewall, David Issac. And to break the ground for him, Kate Tunstall, also known as ‘Red Kate’ – who gained notoriety for trying to cancel customs such as standing for dons and saying grace before meals – played interim provost. Interestingly, though its JCR (Junior Common Room) is a rather progressive creature even its members (and a former provost) protested that her decision ran against the very community she claimed to represent.
Minority rule (whereby the most intolerant wins) is most obvious in the junior common rooms. Many have turned progressive because the generational politics involved in being ‘young’ – an unhelpful inheritance from the soixante-huitards (‘soixante-retards’ to certain audiences) across the Channel – means that everybody wants to shake stuff up in a manner that evokes anybody on the spectrum between Rosa Luxemburg and Greta Thunberg, and JCRs make easy victims. MCRs (Middle Common Rooms), by contrast, are captured mainly by Americans doing one-year masters who think of the UK as their back-garden but then find themselves at odds with what makes it culturally unique. These activists pressure their colleges to act in certain ways, which for external spectators makes it difficult to distinguish between the puppet and the hand. To make an example of gender, activists produce arrangement-templates that reflect gender fluidity and pass it on, pressuring college administrations to follow suit (tailoring the rhetoric: first movements are imagined as trailblazing, middle movements sold as joining the crowd, and late movements framed as frantically assimilating before the college acquires a reactionary reputation). These are bolstered by Gender Expressions Funds, which Cambridge seeks to ape.
Students escaping to their bedrooms are on a hiding to nothing. When they open their laptops they’ll be pinged with emails from their college addressing ‘menstruating members’ of the community or peddled unconscious bias workshops (see here at St John’s, Oxford). Other delights for potential heretics include an online workshop addressing “Self-Care and Whiteness for Students of Colour” aiming to address “race-based challenges,” or the Anti-Racist city Oxford – very much an “as it says on the tin” organisation – which seeks to “continue” [to enforce] learning in this “sensitive area.”
Fortunately, chapels often provide refuge from the loudspeaker dogma. Perhaps with this in mind, however, St Hilda’s (named after the famous Anglo-Saxon abbess) recently abolished its chapel, replacing it with a multi-faith space, thus becoming the third undergraduate college in Oxford not to boast a dedicated chapel. The chaplain’s response throws a slightly comical light on the kafkaesque mechanics of the decision:
“The governing body – of which I am not a member – made the decision entirely independent of me. No faith other than Islam has pressed for a space. And St Hilda’s could have provided a prayer space separate from the chapel.”
Again, Islam is not the ideology’s real concern, using it as a stick to clear its own path is the point. Nevertheless, it is perplexing to watch a city with a rich and unique medieval heritage attempt to morph itself into a bland, soulless business-park version of a university.
Existing less to perpetuate culture (as a repository of moral knowledge) than replace, assay or repudiate it for sinning against the sublime abstractions of the egalitarian weltanschauung, universities bear little resemblance to their monastic forebears. Instead, they form a bicameral Stasi in which students ‘dob in’ teachers who – in return – have no compunction about returning the favour.
Whether the conformist tide can be thrown back is a bigger question. Accelerationists might argue that action now – whether desirable or possible – is too little, too late: it’s impossible to win a kulturkampf playing by your opponent’s rules. If this is true then home-schooling, digital education and universities outside the nexus of state control (like Buckingham University) should form parts of the future education menu.
A more extreme option may be getting rid of universities altogether, or at least just ring-fencing funding for the STEM disciplines. Until these nuclear buttons become viable in a political system that appears geared to ignoring them, however, universities must be assessed honestly by the public – especially when they seek to delegitimize half of the Overton window. To focus on the positive, universities are still politically contestable agorae. They are not yet lost. If only activists of ‘the ideology’ within the hierarchy were no longer incentivised but penalised with precisely the weapons that they employ: qualifications, employment and social stigma.