Rosa Freedman is used to working in war zones with the victims of human rights abuses, so she did not expect to feel unsafe “when visiting UK campuses to give a talk”, she said.
The law professor, who successfully defended herself against students’ allegations that she was “transphobic”, was forced to have a panic alarm and a videophone entry system installed in her office.
The campaign against Freedman, professor of law conflict and global development at Reading University, has included rape threats, demands that she be sacked and urine poured under her office door.
On some campuses, the atmosphere has become so toxic that a group of academics will launch a journal enabling researchers to publish work on sensitive subjects anonymously.
The Journal of Controversial Ideas will issue its first call for papers on subjects such as colonialism, transgender rights, abortion, climate change and eugenics. Academics working in these fields have been subjected to vile online abuse at best, and death threats at worst.
A call for papers on subjects such as colonialism, transgender rights, abortion, climate change and eugenics.
The journal will be co-edited by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, the Oxford professor Jeff McMahan and Francesca Minerva of Warwick University. It is backed by thinkers including the Nobel prize-winner Sir Angus Deaton and the former Harvard president Larry Summers, who himself has been attacked for remarks about women and science. The project reflects growing alarm worldwide at the assault on academic freedom in universities.
One of the journal’s aims is to protect young researchers whose careers can easily be ruined by student protests and petitions, and who may be deterred from doing difficult research as a result. Noah Carl, 29, lost his research fellowship at Cambridge after more than 200 academics published an open letter accusing him of “racist pseudoscience” and dozens of students demonstrated against his work. He is suing St Edmund’s College for breach of contract and unfair dismissal.
Backers include the former Harvard president Larry Summers, who himself has been attacked for remarks about women and science.
Carl told The Sunday Times he thought the controversy would derail his career and he was “unlikely to get another job in academe in the forseeable future”. He felt “beleaguered, singled out for public shaming”.
Singer, the professor of bioethics at Princeton University, New Jersey, said of the new journal: “I think it is necessary because there seems to have been a deterioration in respect of people’s freedom of thought and ability to say what they believe. We are looking for research that is controversial that people might be worried about putting out. It is not a good atmosphere.”
Both Singer and his co-editor Minerva received death threats after separately publishing articles about the euthanasia of babies born with severe disabilities. One of Singer’s attackers was traced and warned by police. The professor had a panic button installed in his office with a scanner to check for suspicious packages.
Minerva was 30 when she published her paper and she believes the backlash blighted her career prospects, hurting her chances of getting a permanent academic job. “I still get some threatening letters,” she said. “They are things like ‘I will find you and open your skull’. They said I wanted to kill newborn babies which of course I didn’t. It was a philosophical argument.”
“We are looking for research that is controversial that people might be worried about putting out.”
She added: “We hope the journal will improve the situation by showing it is good to discuss controversial ideas. If the research has to be published anonymously at least it is being done.”
Some of the most serious protests in recent years have occurred at Oxford and Cambridge.
Jeff McMahan, White’s professor of moral philosophy at Oxford, said, “Denunciations of academics without addressing their views is now happening all the time.”
An open letter denouncing Professor Nigel Biggar of Christ Church College, Oxford for a research project called Ethics and Empire “was successful in that it made him a pariah in academe”, said McMahan. “Students are reluctant to work with him because no one wants to go on the job market with a letter of reference from someone regarded as a pariah. These efforts are damaging.”
Biggar has become an editorial consultant for the journal. He said he had encountered junior colleagues “who have made clear that while they would like to take part in my project they will do so only as long as their name appears nowhere, because they fear that association with me will damage their careers”.
Another Oxford open letter demanded that emeritus professor John Finnis not be allowed to teach students because of his views on gay marriage, McMahan said. “He is a Catholic and his views are traditionally Catholic. He has been denounced as someone who is demonising gay people. I disagree with Finnis but it is ridiculous that students have the right to say this man cannot be allowed to teach us because we don’t like his beliefs.”
McMahan was at the American University of Beirut a year ago giving a talk on the ethics of war when a group of students tried to shout him down for more than 20 minutes.
“It is ridiculous that students have the right to say this man cannot be allowed to teach us because we don’t like his beliefs.”
“Some students had gone to the trouble of combing through my CV online and on page 25 they discovered I am an adviser to the Centre for Moral and Political Philosophy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They decided I was therefore an employee of a Zionist institution so they came to my talk with placards, chanting ‘Death to Israel’. What was odd was that no one looked at what I had written about the Israel-Palestine conflict — in fact I have been anti-Israeli on that issue.”
Both McMahan and Singer agree that much of the stifling of academic debate “is now coming from the left”. Singer said: “What is new is this idea from the left that something that may offend vulnerable or less privileged people should not be expressed. That is being taken to extremes.”
He cited a case at Princeton when students walked out of the classes of one anthropology professor because he used the word “n*****”. “He was using it as an example of prohibited hate speech but they still walked out and he gave up the class in the end.”
“What is new is this idea from the left that something that may offend vulnerable or less privileged people should not be expressed.”
At Reading University, female academics who have backed Freedman fear the protests are not yet over. They say their academic freedom to question trans policies and defend the rights of women is under attack.
Associate professor Chloë Houston, 39, who lectures in early modern drama at Reading, said: “Rosa works to safeguard children and women in conflict zones. She has had awards for her work. It is utterly shocking that she is being so abused and vilified.”
Freedman told The Sunday Times that despite all the complaints against her, the university found no evidence to support a formal disciplinary process. She added: “I will say on the record that I am not willing to be intimidated into not being on campus. The university has been helpful in putting in place a security package for me to ensure I can do my job in a safe way. I cannot say anything further on this matter.”
Reading University said there was “no place for harassment or bullying at our university”.