Is Oxford university’s role intellectual or political?

Just what does a university exist to do ? Does it exist to promote a particular philosophy or political programme ? Does it exist to make society more equal and just ?

Well, the purpose declared in documents like Statutes indicates universities exist to promote research, learning and teaching – sometimes religion too because of the Christian heritage of western nations.

Research, learning and teaching, for sure. That is what universities do. That is their niche role. They do not, then, exist to pursue campaigns. Rather, they are places where intellectuals pose questions and suggest answers based on argument and on evidence. They promote research and learning by means of the intellectual process of thinking and of acquiring knowledge of our existence, be that of the physical world [natural sciences and engineering] or of our interactions as human beings over the entire range of those interactions [humanities and social sciences].

In terms of encouraging thought and acquiring knowledge, it must surely therefore be in-appropriate for universities to pursue campaigns. A cause and its promotion are necessarily one view, reflecting a particular philosophy and the ambitions of those who adhere to that view.

My view of the world is Christian, and my politics are Burkean Conservatism. That explains where I am coming from.  I believe such transparency is both necessary and ethical.

If your politics and religion differ from mine, you may well take serious exception were my religion and my politics promoted by the University of Oxford as if they were objective truth to which everyone should subscribe. I wouldn’t blame you, either !

A university must examine and assess all human activity. It does so by investigating. But as we investigate in order to seek truth, the wise person and the good academic are aware of the truth about themselves as seekers of truth, and the truth about the methodology they employ.

Historiography raises such questions for historians.  In my day, undergraduate historians were taught this in their very first term at Oxford.

But such vital self awareness is evidently neglected in certain quarters in Oxford today. Take the editorial line of the University’s website, for example. There, Ukraine has been thrust into prominence, and the editorial treatment appears worthy of the worst tabloid press.

The website has, for example,  highlighted a Guardian Op-ed by European Studies professor, Timothy Garton Ash, titled “Expert Comment: Ukraine has earned a future in the European Union”.  Ash states Russia is becoming “a satrapy of China” and is suffering “Putinian delusions of rebuilding the Russian empire.” Contrary evidence cited below is completely ignored.

Putin is assumed to be a mad monster with Stalinist era pretensions for expansion. No further explanation need be sought. What we are witnessing is the very opposite of open enquiry and assessment of competing concerns and interests of the various actors in this crisis. The West is right; Putin is wrong. End of.  Indeed one Oxford professor of Ethics has suggested that Putin is a legitimate target for assassination. I cite a transcript of Professor Dill’s contribution to an edition of the BBC’s “Moral Maze”:

So, Hitler, like Putin, they’re not innocent human beings.  If we can foresee the way in which they are going to present imminent threats to the lives of others, then killing them isn’t assassination of an innocent person. It is a defensive killing of someone who is liable to…moral harm.

Presumably Professor Dill advocates the Death Penalty for Murder !

Professor Dill is an example of Oxford thinking I find troublesome. Putin is wicked. This is proved by the shocking evidence of war in Ukraine. Wickedness is wrong and must therefore be eradicated. Ergo, get rid of Putin. Impeccable logic –  but the assumptions and predisposition must surely be questioned.

There is a marked failure in the university website content to give any thing like due consideration to the Russian perspective, concerns and thinking. Instead Putin is placed automatically in the category of evil beast for whom there is no redemption. This interpretation alone explains all.

But of course it doesn’t – not in the real world. Yet at Oxford, the only evidence being allowed to count comprises current atrocities in Ukraine. The history of Russia over the last 30 years has been censored and we jump directly back to the horrors of the Stalinist era. Evidence ?  Global History Professor, Peter Frankopan, cites the “Long Telegram” analysis of George Kennan, US diplomat to Moscow in 1946.  But Frankopan blatantly ignores Kennan’s later and more pertinent warning about the persistence of NATO and the Cold war paradigm in a New York Times Op-Ed, on February 5th, 1997.

And where do we read about U.S. and NATO “activities” over the last 30 years ?  There is no Julian Assange; there is no Edward Snowden; there is no American imperialism reinforcing American domination of the world economy since Bretton Woods in 1944 – a domination leading to western claims, inter alia, on Ukraine and Taiwan …

The only historical and geopolitical evidence being admitted confirms the political predilections of Oxford dons – a predispositon treated as indisputable and axiomatic.

Indeed Professor Dill expresses this disturbing predisposition and closed mindset in the conclusion of the interview cited above.  Her comments demonstrate that the mentality produced by a certain mindset in Oxford today contradicts the very purpose of a university as a place where we pose questions and posit answers. She says:

Now that we are here, our chief moral concern must be the prevention of nuclear escalation and nuclear war. There is really no greater moral evil than that sort of escalation and I think we should not morally be distracted by the question of how did we get here, who is to blame? We need to look forward and try to prevent with everything possible that greater moral evil.

How we got here is a distraction !  With that comment, Professor Dill trashes an entire academic discipline called History…

Thankfully,  South Africa’s President is far more realistic – see this report


Garton Ash Op-ed

Peter Frankopan Global History professor’s view

Kennan Op-ed 1997

Professor Dill interview

University of Oxford Ukraine crisis page

Categorized as Oxford

Should Oxford dons keep their word or are they privileged ?

Should we keep our word, our promised commitment? We all know that we should, and we all know that there are times when we don’t. Sometimes we have reasonable excuses, but they tend to revolve around releasing ourselves from our obligations or duties. In doing so, we fail to consider others – their interests, their needs; we place our own convenience first.

Should university teachers keep their word ? May we expect a higher standard of personal morality from such people, or should we cut them the same slack we allow ourselves ? Does their position of trust as educators of the young oblige them to maintain a more exemplary standard regarding their moral, educational responsibiliites ?

Should the heads of Oxbridge Colleges be expected to keep their word ? Does their position oblige them to operate according to an even higher standard of personal trustworthiness than their academic colleagues ?

When we reinforce our word with a solemn declaration or oath, should there be a higher standard required and therefore a greater sanction imposed when we fail to keep our word ?

When a person witnesses in a court of law, they are required to make a solemn declaration – or an oath before God – obliging them to tell the truth. Is it reasonable of us to expect that they should therefore tell the truth as far as they know it ? Or are they then permitted to forget their declaration or their oath, and say whatever they please ?

Most people have a moral conscience. They don’t need doctorates in ethics to know what is right and what is wrong.

But the Governing Body of Exeter College in the University of Oxford evidently have their own particular view of such matters.

All the dons on the governing body of that College were required to take a solemn, and presumbly binding declaration before taking up their posts as Fellows of the College and therefore as custodians responsible for the administration of the College according to the Statutes and the intentions of the Founders and Benefactors of that College.

The Statutes required them to retire at a certain age, normally before the age of 68. The head of College known as the Rector was also required to make such a solemn commitment and to retire before the age of 68. As the person who is effectively the College’s executive leader, the Rector has particular responsibilities under the Statutes to settle disputes and make critical decisions.

The Rectorship carries a particular responsibility, then. As you might expect.

What are we to think then, when the person who occupies that position is still in post 5 years+ beyond his required retirement ? What are we to think when such a person takes the view that he is not required to uphold and maintain the Statutes of the College with regard to his own position and his own retirement ?

What are we to think when he makes himself judge in his own cause ? What are we to think when he refuses to acknowledge his obligations to the College – freely entered into with solemn declaration – and chooses instead to remain in post; to remain entitled to receive a 6 figure salary with rent free accomodation and certain expenses paid by the College Charitable Trust ?

What are we to think of the Fellows of the Governing Body of the College who refuse to trigger the Statutory process for removal of a man in breach of his obligations under the Statutes of the College ?

What are we to think when both the Fellows of the Governing Body of Exeter College, Oxford and the person occupying the Rectorship agree together to revise radically the Statutes of the College, using that occasion to legitimise a circumstance which is in breach of their obligations under the pre-existing Statutes ?

Are we to view this as observing the Rule of Law ? Or is this a breach of the meaning of the Rule of Law ?

Is this an example of how business should be done in our Universities – is it a worthy and just way of doing business in what is arguably the nation’s principal University ?

Is this an example to emulate ? Is this what we should set up as an example to the young and to future generations ?

Is it ‘legitimate’ for dons already extremely privileged by virtue of their natural gifts and their exceptional position in this world, to claim yet more personal  advantage by pleading their own personal Rights under Equality law ?

Graham R. Catlin

alumnus of Exeter College, Oxford

Categorized as Oxford