Education, higher and otherwise

There have been recent controversies and scandals in higher education in the United States. Many contributors and readers of this blog have (Irish) university connections.

Is there a discussion needed about the relevance, or not, to Ireland of these issues, which concern the question of free speech, variously interpreted? Probably so, since free speech does not defend itself, our history is hardly one of free speech, and our new (so-called) hate speech law is an undeniable, and indeed intentional, diminution of free speech. In Ireland, as elsewhere, diversity and inclusion policies do not seem to extend to viewpoint diversity.  

There is intense discussion currently in the US on these matters. Steven Pinker has trenchantly set out five principles in the Boston Globe; free speech, institutional neutrality, nonviolence, viewpoint diversity, and DEI disempowerment. Harvard Medical School’s Jeffrey Flier has summarised them as follows:

1.  Develop a clearly stated new policy on academic freedom, applied to all schools, addressing some of the ways HU failed to live up to these principles in recent years, using real cases to illustrate.

2. Adopt a new policy on institutional neutrality as relates to political and social issues, apart from those directly related to the function of the university.

3. Better define policies to rule out use of violence and intimidation within classrooms and public spaces, and establish meaningful consequences for their violation, with due process coupled with enhanced efficiency.

4. Conduct a serious, data-driven review of DEI policies and administration to clarify those elements that reflect initial and widely supported goals to appropriately promote and achieve diversity and inclusion along many dimensions, while identifying those areas where programs have failed to meet identified and valid objectives, or may have lost their way, by excessively promoting identitarian thinking and action, and casting a pall on free expression.

5. Take a deep and serious look at the extent and consequences of diminished intellectual and political viewpoint diversity within the university, and what might be done to address this while fully respecting academic freedom.

Some but not all of these recommendations seem pertinent to Irish education and indeed Ireland generally. Others are risks we should definitely guard against. 

By Cathal Guiomard

Cathal Guiomard is a Lecturer in Aviation Management in DCU. Between 2006 and 2014, he was Ireland's Commissioner for Aviation.

One reply on “Education, higher and otherwise”

A couple of immediate thoughts.

– Pinker’s article is quite good, though I think there’s still a distinction between (say) supporting the Israeli invasion and advocating the genocide of all Jews. One is a political opinion that one could agree with or not. The other is hardly a political opinion at all. It’s stepped over into incitement, racial hatred, etc. Surely it’s not beyond the wit of a policy writer to allow one and not allow the other.
– Then, the USA has been busy tying itself in knots about how many different boxes it can identify into which to put people. Racial categories. Sexual preference categories. Political categories. Gender identity categories. Ireland has only barely gotten into the same territory, and very belatedly. Perhaps we can still save ourselves from some of that. And the right to talk openly and freely about it all will indeed be important. But the universities are not where the debate is happening.
– Related to the above, it is quite a struggle for me to think of any Irish university in the same brainspace as the major US universities. While the US universities have indeed been making some dreadful mistakes, they are still so far above the Irish level that it seems almost pointless to worry about free speech on Irish university campuses. Is anyone saying anything interesting anyway?

So on Cathal’s overall question….I sadly wonder whether worrying about it is an irrelevance in an Irish university context.

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