Whitewashing academic debate
A student of Dr Frank Ellis - the Leeds lecturer suspended for his racist views - asks why the university couldn't handle a heated argument.
Dr Frank Ellis was suspended from his job teaching Russian at Leeds University last week, after comments he made in an interview with the Leeds Student suggesting that ethnicity played a role in determining IQ. Ellis claimed it was ‘beyond any reasonable doubt [that] there is a persistent gap in black and white average intelligence’. A succession of people have come forward to denounce him, from the university authorities to a local MP. According to the latest edition of the student paper, he is even under investigation by the West Yorkshire police on the charge of incitement to racial hatred (1).
As someone taught by Dr Ellis, the presentation of this case doesn’t tally with reality. Dr Ellis is certainly an eccentric, but I had no idea about his views on race before the student paper published them; he’s always found far more diverse topics to talk about, from his dislike of the BBC to how to survive a bomb going off near you. His particular topic of interest is Stalingrad.
The main accusation that Ellis’ attackers raise is that he is using his position of authority to indoctrinate students. Russianists are presented as delicate, naive creatures, who are incapable of forming their own opinions. There’s been no shortage of people eager to protect us from Ellis’ subversive doctrines, but as far as I’m aware no students from within the department have raised any concerns along these lines.
When seven former students wrote to the Observer complaining of his ‘offensive comments’ during seminars that undermined their confidence in his ability to assess them on merit, it left most of us baffled (2). Leeds has a fairly strict system of staff-student committees, at which any issues about teaching can be raised anonymously; if these former students had put forward their concerns at the time, disciplinary proceedings would have been brought against Ellis long ago. Some have complaints about the way he conducts lectures, but the campaign has shown no interest in the quality of his teaching.
The level of student support for the campaign has been overestimated by the media. After the Leeds Student interview, the Unite Against Fascism group managed to get over 500 signatures on a petition calling for Ellis to be sacked. This was hailed as popular support for the campaign (3). This is a little optimistic, however; when a petition like this is waved in people’s faces outside the main union building, it’s rare that they even read the whole document.
Unite Against Fascism then organised protests outside his lectures two weeks ago; this was written up as a ‘boycott’, as if large quantities of his students had refused to attend out of disgust for his opinions (4). I did know a few people who weren’t planning on turning up, before the department cancelled the day’s classes – though some of those were more motivated by the prospect of a few more hours in bed than by political principles. The people I’ve talked to mostly find Ellis’ views repugnant, but have no desire to see him lose his job over them.
The university authorities have tried to silence and repress the debate, out of an apparent fear for their public image. This isn’t the first time they have come into conflict with Ellis; they attempted to ban him from attending an American Renaissance conference in Virginia, at which he would attack the findings of the Macpherson Inquiry (5). During the recent debate, Ellis has been asked repeatedly by the university to remain silent – one of the reasons given for his suspension was his failure to do so (6).
Although the university naturally wants to protect its image, it needs to realise that there is still a debate on race and multiculturalism to be thrashed out. Objectionable opinions are best defeated with argument rather than suppression. More to the point, the university has completely misjudged how to handle Ellis, someone who thrives on the opportunity to air his views and take the moral high ground of free speech. He’s been arguing for many years that the multiculturalist system imposes a regime of Soviet-style censorship, under which the expression of controversial ideas is not tolerated; recent events allow him to confirm his claims.
Ideas as offensive as those held by Ellis should have their flaws revealed by reasoned debate and scientific research. If the University of Leeds doesn’t have the self-confidence to allow a debate on the important issues of modern society within its walls, then we really should be worried.
Jack Jordan studies Russian and Arabic at Leeds University, and has worked as an intern at spiked.
(1) ‘Sack racist prof’, Leeds Student, 17 March 2006
(2) Your letters, Observer, 12 March 2006
(3) Tutor defends ‘racist’ stance, BBC News, 8 March 2006
(4) ‘Lecture boycotts’, Leeds Student, 3 March 2006
(5) Leeds don to attack Lawrence findings, Guardian, 2 March 2000
(6) Ellis faces disciplinary charges, Campusweb, 27 March 2006
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