Aaron Sloman
12 Oct 2005
(These are my personal views and neither the school of computer science nor the university should be held responsible for them.)

Letter sent to colleagues: 12 Oct 2005

I sense from the ripples in recent email that someone may be trying to restrict academics to mention nothing in their classes that is not part of the syllabus.

This would rule out expressing views about national or international injustices, bad management of the university, or whatever.

Such restrictions should be strongly resisted.

Universities should contain a high percentage of the most intelligent, thoughtful, independent, creative, and articulate members of the community, who are committed to the growth and promulgation of knowledge and understanding. It is part of their traditional role to think, analyse, find and examine evidence, and expound their conclusions even when critical of authority -- any authority. If they find evidence that the earth moves round the sun, or is 4 billion years old, or that humans are products of evolution, they should say so, no matter who says otherwise.

If they reach conclusions that they think are of great importance (whether to the university, the nation, or the world at large) they have a positive moral duty to inform their students and other people, whether or not that happens to be what they are specifically paid to do or instructed to do by their superiors in the chain of command -- subject of course to legal or civil action if they break laws (e.g. libel, incitement to violence, etc.)

If they do nothing but make such pronouncements, then they can be penalised for not doing what they are expected to do. But it would be completely against the function of universities to be sources of powerful new ideas and challenges to complacency to penalise individuals for doing *more* than their duty.

Of course, there is a risk that some cranky staff with bees in their bonnets will go over the top on their pet hobby-horses, but that's a price worth paying and the others can articulate their own criticisms of erroneous views coming from such people.

Instead of worrying about how such statements might harm the university, the university should proudly proclaim that one of its principles is to allow people freedom of speech within the law, even if that occasionally leads to silliness or causes offence or upset -- because allowing such independence produces greater long term benefits (e.g. avoiding stagnation of ideas) than not allowing it.

If academics in a university meekly accepted that they should do only what they are instructed to do, I would wish to move somewhere else!

Some argue that criticising one's own university publicly is a kind of disloyalty. That's another attempt at excessive control.

We all accept that it is proper to criticise goverments and government ministers e.g. on grounds of ignorance, incompetence, bad judgement, or poor ethics. But at least we also have the chance to vote them out. Since we don't have the chance to vote out senior managers of universities it is all the more important that their mistakes should be pointed out for the greater long term good of the university, the people in it and the country (or world) that it serves.

That's a much better kind of loyalty in the long run.

Anyhow, people who cannot take public criticism should never be involved in running universities. They should do jobs where their decisions impact on few others.