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Take the pitchforks out of the puritans’ hands

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IT WAS the Russian dissident Evgeny Zamyatin who wrote that “heretics are the only remedy against the entropy of human thought.”

Zamyatin would be surprised to hear that the latest heretic to be singled out in a Western university is Dr Neil Thin, a 60-year-old Senior Lecturer in social anthropology at the University of Edinburgh with 34 years of experience.

Thin opposed the renaming of David Hume Tower last year, which was the result of a petition started by an American (previously a student at Smith College, an exclusive private women’s liberal arts college in the US which costs $77,148 per annum) and spurred on by BlackEd, an “anti-racism organisation” at the University. He also criticised an event called “Resisting Whiteness” on the grounds that it racially segregated students, something that Thin labelled “racist.” He was immediately on the radar.

Then students found his Twitter account, in which he argued in favour of J.K. Rowling and against the terms BAME and POC. If David Hume was purged for a comment he made in one footnote in 1742, then you can only imagine the severity of Thin’s indiscretions in the eyes of our woke warriors. These were grounds for a new campaign.

BlackEd took to the airwaves of Instagram to publicise Thin’s “problematic” and supposedly offensive posts on Twitter, as well as the testimony of anonymous students who claimed that he marked them down for political reasons. One third year anthropology student crafted a template letter of complaint about Thin for students to send to the university.

Soon enough, Thin was removed from all student-facing roles pending an investigation. On contacting the University I was told, as was the press, that “Dr Thin took a decision to step back temporarily from his academic duties in the current circumstances; the University has not suspended him from his role.” Thin later clarified that his Head of School took the decision to remove him from his role.

Comments swirled in online forums like the University’s anonymous confession page “Edifess,” branding Thin a “scumbag”, a “rape apologist” and a “crusty old man.” The students who defamed and denounced Dr Thin have not only escaped any form of censure or penalty so far, they have not even been challenged to explain themselves. It is crucial that universities encourage students to disagree in more considerate and constructive ways in future. It is cowardly and antisocial to mount an online denunciation of someone without first trying to engage them in conversation, and it is illegal to do so in defamatory ways.

The reason the University claimed incorrectly that Thin jumped before he was pushed is that it has a stated obligation, as well as a legal one, to protect the freedom of expression of its students and staff.

In its statement titled “Our Commitment to Freedom of Expression,” published 2 November 2020, the University of Edinburgh stated that it has a “unique and indispensable role to play both in cultivating and defending freedom of expression,” and that only limited restrictions should be placed on speech that violates the protections set out in the Human Rights Act 1998 or the Equality Act 2010, that It also incites violence, hatred or discrimination, or that invokes the University’s statutory duty under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Section 26 of the Further and Higher Education (Scotland) Act 2005 requires institutions in Scotland to uphold the academic freedom of all persons engaged in teaching, the provision of learning, or research at the institution. The University must also ensure that such staff appointments held or sought, and entitlements or privileges, are not adversely affected by their exercise of academic freedom. Academic freedom is defined to include freedom within the law to hold and express opinions, question and test established ideas or received wisdom, develop and advance new ideas or innovative proposals, and present controversial or unpopular points of view.

The University’s suspension of Thin lasted two months as it investigated complaints made against him. This is not how complaints of academic misconduct are normally handled.

Meanwhile, some of Thin’s colleagues decided to immediately take the side of the complaining students, pledging “solidarity” and apologising for them having to “shoulder the burden of the damage and hurt that Neil’s behaviour has wrought.” None of the colleagues who took the students’ side was honest enough to give Dr Thin a chance to clarify any of his views. The sheer cowardice of both students and staff shows that we have a serious problem with basic communication and common decency in universities.

After 8 weeks he was eventually exonerated, much to the disappointment of the aggrieved student censors.

The third-year who organised the letter of complaint took solace, however, in the knowledge that “this procedure has damaged his reputation, and so it should have. We are all here at the University to educate ourselves, and because of that very education as Anthropology students we were able to recognise the harm his academic activity has caused.”

People like this are not new – querulous students whose keenest trait is their opposition to the free exchange of ideas have always been around and will continue to be. What has changed is the newfound obsequious attitude of universities towards these self-made inquisitors. According to an insider BlackEd regularly has the ear of Edinburgh Principal Peter Mathieson.

The solution is for universities to cease bowing to the first sign of pressure from puritan students and make it clear that these are spaces in which we must be able to discuss, disagree and converse like adults. Formal grievance procedures should be initiated only where conversation has no prospect of working.

Extra-judicial 8-week-long suspensions pending an “investigation” must cease. They cause immense disruption, personal hurt and professional disrepute. They are essentially bullying tactics that will push countless academics into silence and conformity regardless of their eventual conclusions.

Academic institutions need to step up and take on their responsibility to foster an environment in which people can exchange ideas freely and without fear of extrajudicial persecution. It’s time to take the pitchforks out of the hands of illiberal students.

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Photo of Pitchfork bSingha songsak from Adobe Stock

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