Whither the university

People who oppose abortion rights are making a big fuss about Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame, the Catholic university in Indiana.

The vast majority of faculty and students support the invitation. However, a few academics have come out against and are planning a commencement-day protest. Most of the noise, though, is coming from outside the university. Over 60 bishops have publicly opposed the invitation…

But that’s not the best bit. This is:

The ability of Notre Dame to stir Catholic hearts speaks to the role it plays among “subway” alumni – immigrants and their descendants who in many cases have never visited the university but whose devotion to it and its American football team forms part of their Catholic identity.

Yeah! They’ve never been there, and they couldn’t give less of a shit about actual education or learning or research, but man they love that football team and that there Catholic identity. That’s what universities are for – football, and identity.

Except places like Cambridge. Cambridge has its priorities straight. Right?

Maybe not.

After the university amended its equal opportunities policy to stress it “respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds” and opposes discrimination, Prof Ross Anderson warned it could [damage] freedom of speech among staff frightened of causing offence.

It could also damage Cambridge’s reputation for being a university. How can a university possibly respect religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds? When so many religious or philosophical beliefs are idiotic? How can a university sign up to deciding in advance that religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds are automatically worthy of respect?

University policies on race equality were approved in 2002, with statements on disability and gender equality added in 2007. Further development of those policies, as the university puts it, would see respect for philosophical and religious beliefs (including lack of belief) put under this banner of protection. The new addition to policy says: “The university’s core values are freedom of thought and expression and freedom from discrimination. It therefore respects religious or philosophical beliefs of all kinds, including the lack of religion or belief.”

But respect for philosophical and religious beliefs shouldn’t be put under a banner of protection. Respect for people, as a shorthand for not doing bad things to them, yes, but for beliefs, no. At a university of all places!

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering, hit out at the amendment, submitting an official note of dissent. He wrote: “The university has no duty under this legislation to ‘promote religion and belief equality’, merely a duty not to discriminate when hiring staff or admitting students – which we stopped doing in 1877. The unfortunate wording of this policy might be interpreted to suggest that Cambridge is to promote the equality of evolution with creationism, or of cosmology with shepherds’ tales. We must never accept any duty to promote the equality of truth and falsehood.”

Out of the mouths of professors of security engineering.

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