Mathematics professors at top UK universities are to warn ministers on Thursday that academics are too scared to challenge harmful attempts to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum.
A dozen prominent academics have written to education minister Claire Coutinho, calling for greater protections for free speech in universities, where many professors fear it is too “personally risky” to challenge the decolonization agenda.
For mathematics majors, professors are pressured to explain how they are presenting a “multicultural, decolonized view” of the subject. In a recent consultation, the Quality Assurance Agency, which advises universities on course standards, said math professors should “present the work of a diverse group” of mathematicians and make sure students are aware of whether they have “connections with the slave trade, racism or Nazism.
A group of professors will warn on Thursday that such guidance “risks politicizing the subject of mathematics and presenting a distorted perspective on its history.”
They said in a joint letter, seen by The Telegraph, that it “also violates the academic freedom of mathematicians to teach their subject in accordance with their best professional judgement”. However, they warned that academics “who challenge orthodoxies on topics such as gender identification and diversity face physical intimidation from student activists.”
“Many mathematicians consider it personally risky to suggest that ‘decolonising the curriculum’ may not be the best way to encourage more black and minority ethnic backgrounds to pursue mathematics,” they added.
The signatories to the letter include Professor Alan Sokal of University College London, Professor Abhishek Saha of Queen Mary University of London, Professor Jane Hutton, a medical statistician working at the University of Warwick, and Dr Yuri Bazlov of the University of Manchester.
They are urging the government to fight to pass the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill in its original form, despite opposition in the House of Lords. Clause 4 of the bill would give academics and students the power to sue universities if their rights to free speech are violated. The government tabled amendments to the bill that would mean academics could only use those powers as a “last resort”, after first pursuing complaints through the relevant university and higher education regulator’s procedures.
Personal cost of raising complaints “too high”
However, responding to the amendments, the mathematicians said: “We don’t think this would give us the protection we need. Universities have vast resources and power compared to individual academics. If academics are required to exhaust all internal processes… and then take up to 12 months to take their complaint through the Student Office before they can begin the lengthy process of going to court, we believe the personal cost to raise any complaints would be too high, making the system ineffective. Ms Coutinho has previously said the government remains “steadfast in our commitment that academics and speakers have the right to go to court where this fundamental right has been denied”.
A spokesperson for Universities UK said: “Universities are working hard to create the right conditions to protect and promote free speech and academic freedom on their campuses, and there are already significant legal obligations placed on universities to uphold free speech. . The government’s proposed changes to the free speech law are helping to make the new tort more focused in scope, reducing the risk of university resources being wasted defending frivolous or vexatious claims.