Conservative speaker at Undergraduate Political Review elicits uproar and reflection

Kauffman at the LSE Festival 2019 (photo courtesy of LSE in Pictures Flickr)

Outcry ensued on social media following news that the Undergraduate Political Review (UPR) invited right-leaning LSE alum, Professor Eric Kaufmann, to speak on academic freedom at this year’s conference held on 18 February. 

While the event typically highlights the work of LSE undergraduate research projects, Kaufmann hogged much of the speculation and curiosity from the student body. A Birkbeck College professor of politics and author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, Kaufmann has attained widespread critical attention in both national media coverage and academic articles for his work. Students expressed outrage on Facebook towards the UPR’s decision to invite Kaufmann to speak on academic freedom. Still, Adam Hudson, the UPR’s editor-in-chief, argued that Kaufmann’s salient position as a consultant to the new Tory government on the topic made him suitable to speak on the issue.

“Academic freedom (and a ‘campus free speech bill’) was a key pledge in the recent Tory manifesto, and we understand that both Professor Kaufman and his co-author Tom Simpson (Oxford) are in consultation with the new government about such legislation being in-acted,” wrote Hudson in an email. “In this way, his insider status makes him well placed to deliver one side of the academic freedom debate, and a side that could become UK-law.”

Hudson also wrote that the event’s organising members felt the need to spark debate on the issue, one that they deemed uncharted until recently on campus. “This was the reason that we changed the style of the event from previous years with the addition of the talk from someone reasonably prominent in that area,” he said. 

“Out of the numerous members of LSE staff we spoke to about the event, and specifically Professor Kaufmann’s invitation, all expressed pretty much the same view,” he said. “This being one that can be summarised as: ‘oh yeah, he’s pretty infamous for his views on demographics and questionable methods to reach his conclusions’… does this mean we shouldn’t invite him? … ‘No – challenging him in person is something of significant value’.”

An LSE spokesperson told The Beaver that the school” is committed to encouraging staff, students and visitors to engage in a free exchange of ideas, even on issues over which views may differ sharply, but this must always be in an atmosphere of mutual respect.” 

Three student attendees interviewed prior to the speech largely condemned Kaufmann’s views but sought to indulge the speaker with the same spirit of academic debate. 

“I don’t agree with a lot of what he says, but I don’t think that’s grounds for not having him come and talk; it’s up to people who disagree with him and think he’s wrong to come and challenge him,” said one student. 

“Actually having someone [to whom] people can be like ‘no I don’t agree’ and actually getting them to defend their views is quite interesting,” said another. “But I agree I think there’s a fine line between when it starts to make people uncomfortable that he’s here.”

Students also expressed concern over the potential lack of exposure to alternative viewpoints on campus. “If you don’t let him speak, you’re missing out on a proportion of society that does exist,” said one student. “If we graduate from LSE thinking that everyone thinks like everyone here then you’re not going to address the issues that exist.” 

Students who attended the event also commented on whether platforms should be given to academics who have been critiqued for the credibility of their research. “A lot of academics’ research is false generally; I think that there has to be something addressed in terms of equipping social scientists with a higher level of statistical education background to ensure that the research that they do is more thorough,” said one of the students.

Kaufmann echoed concerns of ideological bias in academia in his talk by asserting that a majority of left-leaning academics in universities has led to an absence of challenges to their findings, which undermines academic freedom. “The problem here is that you’re not getting conservative academics,” he said. “This is a very important problem in many ways in terms of which questions are being asked.”

Kaufmann illustrated his claims with a Policy Exchange study co-authored by him, which surveyed 505 UK undergraduates and questioned students on their views on free speech versus emotional safety when confronted with specific cases of academic and cultural freedom. Results claim that a considerable population of students held pro-speech or malleable positions and that, when confronted with pro-speech rhetoric, undecided students were swayed accordingly. He also showed that all respondents claimed that right-leaning “Leave” students would feel less comfortable expressing their views in class; the study, however, only speculated on the actual views of respective left and right-leaning students from their responses. 

Kaufmann also conceded that his study’s small sample size is likely not representative of the UK student population as a whole. However, he generalised his findings to pose UK-wide policy recommendations, advocating for academic freedom scores within university rankings as well the creation of an external organisation monitoring academic freedom on campuses. 

When questioned on the emotional considerations of marginalised groups within debates, Kaufmann argued that the safety of these and all groups, in general, is largely socially-constructed.

“My view is actually that this is much more about progressive ideology, and progressive ideology has used the category of safety and has socially constructed a lot of this sense of offendedness,” he said. “So people are being ideologically urged to be offended by things they probably wouldn’t be offended by; I think the ideology is encouraging people to weaponise emotions and fragility.”

Kaufmann remarked that he hopes for people to put their emotional reasoning to the side of rational debates for the sake of preserving the integrity of freedom from the complications of safety. 

“What I would like to prefer is to make people stronger, to feel more empowered, or feel more resilient to be offended, to disagree, etc.” he said. “I think that would be the healthier way to go rather than what some people seem to do which is to sort of smuggle in a kind of definition of emotional safety into the definition of freedom to say ‘well some people are less free because they don’t feel safe’.”

Following the speech, Hudson urged that the debate validated Kaufmann’s presence at the conference and in front of students generally. 

“I think it is far more beneficial for people to hear the views of academics who express a controversial opinion or operate with potentially problematic methodology, than not allowing such individuals to be heard and crucially challenged,” he said. 

Hudson emphasised his willingness to continue the debate with students still unconvinced or threatened by this year’s choice of speaker. “If the feeling that violence [was promoted] as a result of last night’s event is genuine, then it would be wrong for me not to apologise to those people,” he told The Beaver. “I would, as I have said, encourage anyone who feels like this to reach out to me so that I can better understand this feeling. This is, after all, how we form well-reasoned views on complicated issues such as this.”

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