Shielding students from uncomfortable opinions does them no favours

Identity politics is killing critical thinking in the university. I have been in UCD for fifteen years, first as a PhD student, then as a tutor and currently as a lecturer. I am also research officer for the Iona Institute. If you believe in rumors or conspiracies theories, I should qualify as the best candidate to be the mastermind of Katie Ascough’s election as president of the UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU). Unfortunately, I have never had the pleasure to meet Miss Ascough in my life.

In the current issue of the University Observer, the official paper of the UCDSU, the Iona Institute and its malefic influence is mentioned in three different articles. Rather than tackle their highly paranoid view of us, I will take this opportunity instead to highlight the alarming restrictions now being placed on contemporary university life and debate.

In my youth, I was a national leader of the national federation of university students and this is probably why I take student activism and participation, which are a good example of civic commitment, seriously. Not everybody does. In UCD, earlier this year, 90% of students did not vote for the election of their union officers. Even when they ousted Katie Ascough, attracting interest internationally, 80% of the students didn’t care to cast a vote.

Why are students disengaged from the Union that purports to represent them? Their apathy has many reasons. Some might be happy with how things are, others, more likely, might find a student union irrelevant. But there is another significant reason that needs to be addressed because it questions the nature of university education itself, today more than ever.

The Students’ Union is not only unable to embrace the plurality of views of its members but, in promoting divisive identity politics rather than fair representation, it alienates its own members. When, rarely, the frustration of some students takes the form of a challenge rather than mere indifference, the Union chastises them. This happened in 2013, for instance, when a student’s request to leave the Union was denied by the UCDSU. Fortunately, the Independent Appeals and Disciplinary Board ruled that they were wrong and couldn’t force someone to stay in the Union against his or her will.  More here:

And it happened again with the election of an ‘outsider’ such as Katie Ascough.  “There were reasons for impeachment that appeared before she got in the door”, writes the editor of the University Observer. The defenders of the official orthodoxy, who called for her removal from the very minute she was elected, didn’t had to wait long to find a ‘good’ pretext. These reasons are the views she shares with her father, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Oops, sorry, I meant to say of the Iona Institute. The Muslim Brotherhood would be more acceptable to the establishment in Ireland nowadays.

Last week prolife speakers from Ireland were shouted down by representatives of the Oxford Student Union. The same is likely to happen soon in our best universities too, given the current climate. In a predictable attempt to defend those bullies, the leader of the Oxford SU tweeted “Bodily autonomy is not up for debate; it is not a question of opinion.

Quite the opposite. The university, as an institution, was founded in the Middle Ages on the principle that everything should be up for debate and no opinion should remain unquestioned. Otherwise, it is not a place for critical inquiry but for propaganda. Unfortunately, a growing deficit in viewpoint diversity is evident not only among students but also among lecturers. However, shielding students from arguments that they might find uncomfortable is a disservice to them and the truth.

I appreciated the ingenuous sincerity of the editor of the University Observer who told her readers to “avoid reading the articles of columnists who are part of the IONA institute.” She interprets wonderfully the fashionable misunderstanding of the university as a safe place where certain opinions should be avoided because they are likely to offend, cause conflict, trigger warning. She believes that her role as editor of the Students’ Union paper is to invite students to limit their sources of knowledge, for their own good. I doubt anyone will listen but this attitude betrays an ideology that kills university life.

Cardinal Newman, so dear to UCD, in discussing and rejecting the exclusion of dangerous books from the curriculum so as to preserve students from the threats of reality, said: ‘It is not the way to learn to swim in troubled waters, never to have gone into them’. Students should face all kinds of opinions and make up their own minds.

If the Students’ Union wants to regain legitimacy it should aim at reaching all sorts of students, particularly those who are ideologically more distant from the stereotypical activist. The Ascough case was a lost opportunity.



Post scriptum:  The University Observer has contacted me to clarify that the editorial was written not by the Editor but by the Deputy Editor.