At last year’s Times Higher Education World Academic Summit meeting in September, the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Louise Richardson, revealed that she’s
had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality […] And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable […] If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that […] Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind.
This was followed by an official statement from Professor Richardson on the university website, pointing out that the university has an anti-discriminatory policy which she has always supported. She did not retract any of her words from the summit.
As someone who has taught students at Oxford and elsewhere, let me say this: it is absolutely not the role of a teacher to make students feel uncomfortable.
Professor Richardson is mistaking the need to challenge students intellectually with a desire to make them so uncomfortable, so distressed, that they complain to a university authority. Yes, we should be able to justify and defend all our positions, including the idea that homophobia is bad. Yes, students should have to understand and analyse ideas they may not agree with. Yes, students should at times feel out of their depth or bewildered – this is how we know we are stretching them intellectually.
But as teachers we control the context in which ideas and views are argued for or against, and I see no reason why a professor’s personal views on a subject should even be considered. What matters is, what does the student think? Why do they think this? Most importantly, how do these thoughts relate to the topic they are studying?
This intellectual work should take place in an environment the student is comfortable in; just as you would not ask a student to sit an exam whilst half-submerged in icy water, we should not expect students to learn from someone they know holds offensive views.
How do we define ‘offensive’? The Sun reporter Giulia Crouch paraphrased Professor Richardson’s comments as ‘DON’T INDULGE SNOWFLAKES […] Generation Snowflake students need to toughen up and challenge views they disagree with rather than taking offence’. The problem with this interpretation is that Richardson singled out negative views on homosexuality in her example, and homosexuality is not just an idea, it’s an identity. As such, the problem isn’t that someone has a different opinion from the student; it is that part of the student’s identity – or part of the identity of people the student cares about – is being judged and attacked.
If the professor was instead arguing against the effectiveness of government surveillance to counter domestic terrorism, or the idea that the British Corn Laws bolstered the Victorian economy, then yes, a discordant student should construct a counter argument, rather than taking offense and complaining. That, however, is not the point Professor Richardson was making.
But what if we reversed the hypothetical, and the student was homophobic, and felt uncomfortable because their professor was pro-LGBT rights? You can imagine other examples – the student could be racist, anti-Semitic, or sexist, and these views might even form part of the student’s identity, as a white supremacist or a ‘meninist’. Would this student also have the right to feel ‘comfortable’ at university?
The difference is that in these examples the professor’s position is inclusive rather than exclusive, assuming that all sexualities, religions, and genders should be treated equally. The onus is on the student to argue that a sexual, religious, or gender identity should be treated differently, and those arguments should be heard and responded to objectively (although I’ve yet to hear an argument for negative discrimination that holds up to serious scrutiny).
Of course, this assumes that arguments against homosexuality – or any other identity – are relevant to the topic being studied, and that personal views needed to be considered. Even if that topic was the effect of gay marriage in the Christian church, a teacher should still frame all arguments in the context of the wider effects and issues; not because it will make everyone feel more comfortable, but because this is how we analyse ideas at universities.
Professor Richardson’s remarks are particularly disappointing as her university is generally a very comfortable, welcoming place for everyone, including LGBTQ students. The colleges fly rainbow flags for LGBTQ awareness; student committees have LGBTQ representatives; cases of discrimination based on sexuality are treated seriously by welfare and disciplinary teams. A few years ago the chaplain of my college draped a rainbow flag across the chapel lectern for LGBTQ awareness month, and gave a stirring sermon in which he apologised for the church’s prosecution of LGBTQ people.
Oxford students and organisations have been quick to respond to professor Richardson’s comments. The University’s LGBTQ society wrote an open letter, asking her to apologise, and reminding her that as Vice-Chancellor she has moral and ethical obligations to protect LGBTQ students according to the Equality Act 2010 and the university’s own equality policy. It has 3,185 signatures.
Lloyd Houston, a teacher and LGBTQ Staff Role Model at the university, also wrote an open letter. He argues that the power balance in the teacher-student relationship does not work the way the Vice-Chancellor describes it: the tutor is an intimidating authority, one of the people who determines the student’s academic success, and to expect a young unqualified person to ‘persuade’ them to reconsider their view on the student’s lifestyle is grossly unfair.
What the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University says – and how others respond – is important, not just because it sets a standard at the university; Oxford also helps set a standard in the world. Young students preparing for their studies at Oxford or other universities now think that as well as defending their arguments, they may have to defend their sexualities from criticism. A student should be worried they haven’t done enough summer reading (you can never do enough summer reading), not that they have the ‘wrong’ sexuality.
As teachers, we have a duty of care to our students. As scholars, we have an intellectual obligation to frame ideas and perspectives in historical and social contexts. We can reject homophobia and maintain a high standard of intellectual rigour; we only need to put the emphasis on the student’s ability to understand and argue, all the time respecting the personal identities of the people we are teaching.
A version of this article appeared as a ‘letter to the editor’ in the January / February edition of The Gay and Lesbian Review.
Sean Coughlan, ‘Oxford head attacks ‘tawdry politicians’ on university pay’, BBC News, 4 September 2017: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41149074
Louise Richardson, ‘Statement from Louise Richardson, Vice-Chancellor’, University of Oxford, 6 September 2017: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-09-06-statement-louise-richardson-vice-chancellor
Giulia Crouch, ‘DON’T INDULGE SNOWFLAKES: Oxford university head says Generation Snowflake students need to toughen up and challenge views they disagree with rather than taking offence’, The Sun, 4 September 2017: https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4392155/oxford-professor-toughen-up-snowflake-students/
Oxford University LGTBQ+ Society, ‘Letter to the Vice Chancellor and Senior Staff of the University of Oxford’: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSd8kJePIi8erpbpytUMXHKNeSCJyUeBtxhJp9HqI3cnumH3yA/viewform
Lloyd Houston, Facebook post, September 5 2017: https://www.facebook.com/lloyd.houston.7/posts/10154961028392616