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[Peter Singer] Will Cambridge support free speech?

By Korea Herald

Published : April 16, 2024 - 05:12

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Nathan Cofnas is a research fellow in the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Cambridge. His research is supported by a grant from the Leverhulme Trust. He is also a college research associate at Emmanuel College. Working at the intersection of science and philosophy, he has published several papers in leading peer-reviewed journals. He also writes popular articles and posts on Substack.

In January, Cofnas published a post called “Why We Need to Talk about the Right’s Stupidity Problem.” No one at Cambridge seems to have been bothered by his argument that people on the political right have, on average, lower intelligence than those on the left.

Some people at Cambridge were, however, very much bothered by Cofnas’s February post, “A Guide for the Hereditarian Revolution.” To follow Cofnas’s “guide,” one must accept “race realism”: the view that heredity plays a role in the existing social and economic differences between different demographic groups. Only by challenging the taboo against race realism, Cofnas believes, can conservatives overcome “wokism,” which he sees as a barrier to understanding the causes of inequality and to allowing people to succeed on the basis of merit.

If Harvard University admitted students “under a colorblind system that judged applicants only by academic qualifications,” Cofnas asserted, Black people “would make up 0.7 percent of Harvard students.” He also wrote that in a meritocracy, the number of black professors at Harvard “would approach 0 percent.”

That post gave rise to a petition from Cambridge students demanding that the university dismiss Cofnas. The petition currently has about 1,200 signatures.

On Feb. 16, the Master of Emmanuel College, Doug Chalmers, responded to the protests by saying that the college is committed to “providing an environment that is free from all discrimination.” The relevance of this comment is unclear; although there are many statements in Cofnas’s post that one can reasonably object to, it does not advocate racial discrimination. Importantly, though -- or so it seemed at the time -- Chalmers added that the college is also committed to “freedom of thought and expression,” and he acknowledged Cofnas’s “academic right, as enshrined by law, to write about his views.”

On the same day, professor Bhaskar Vira, pro-vice-chancellor for education at Cambridge, issued a brief statement that began, “Freedom of speech within the law is a right that sits at the heart of the University of Cambridge. We encourage our community to challenge ideas they disagree with and engage in rigorous debate.” He then made the obvious point that “the voice of one academic does not reflect the views of the whole university community,” adding that many staff and students “challenge the academic validity of the arguments presented.” His statement concluded by seeking to reassure students who were “understandably hurt and upset” by Cofnas’s views that “everyone at Cambridge has earned their place on merit and no one at this University should be made to feel like this.”

There was no suggestion, in the statements made by Chalmers or Vira, that either Emmanuel College or the University of Cambridge was considering dismissing Cofnas. Yet, in the face of continuing protests, both the college and the university bowed to the pressure and began their own inquiries, as did the Leverhulme Trust. The university’s inquiry and that of the Trust are, at the time of writing, ongoing, but on April 5 Cofnas received a letter notifying him that Emmanuel College had decided to terminate its association with him.

In justifying that decision, the letter informed Cofnas of the views of a committee that had been asked to consider his blog:

“The Committee first considered the meaning of the blog and concluded that it amounted to, or could reasonably be construed as amounting to, a rejection of Diversity, Equality, and Inclusion (DEI and EDI) policies. ... The Committee concluded that the core mission of the College was to achieve educational excellence and that diversity and inclusion were inseparable from that. The ideas promoted by the blog therefore represented a challenge to the College’s core values and mission.”

These sentences imply that at Emmanuel College, freedom of expression does not include the freedom to challenge its DEI policies, and that challenging them may be grounds for dismissal. That is an extraordinary statement for a tertiary institution to make. It is even more surprising given that the adoption of DEI policies is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Emmanuel College’s decision does not prevent Cofnas from continuing to hold his research fellowship in the Faculty of Philosophy. But that would cease to be the case if the university inquiry were to reach the same conclusion as the college.

The academic world will be watching what happens. Were the University of Cambridge to dismiss Cofnas, it would sound a warning to students and academics everywhere: when it comes to controversial topics, even the world’s most renowned universities can no longer be relied upon to stand by their commitment to defend freedom of thought and discussion.

Peter Singer

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University and founder of the organization The Life You Can Save. The views expressed here are the writer’s own. -- Ed.

(Project Syndicate)