The lynch mobbing of Noah Carl

Cambridge’s dumping of a research fellow raises serious questions about academic freedom.

Andrew Tettenborn

Topics Free Speech UK

The subversion of intellectual life at Oxford and Cambridge continues apace, as shown by the treatment of Noah Carl, removed from a Cambridge research fellowship following a sustained campaign aimed at having him sacked.

To recap, Dr Carl, then a postdoc at Nuffield College, Oxford, was elected last year to a research fellowship in social science at St Edmunds, Cambridge. He was known to be politically right-wing. He had written a series of articles on, among other things, attitudes to race and immigration that were unwelcome to the left. And he had attended an event called the London Conference on Intelligence, where eugenics, race and intelligence had reportedly been discussed (though not by him).

The college’s students’ union protested against the appointment. Later a Cambridge mathematics professor stirred the hornets’ nest by writing an open letter to St Edmunds accusing Dr Carl of producing work that was ‘ethically suspect’, ‘methodologically flawed’, and amounting to ‘racist pseudoscience’ which had been weaponised by the far right. The professor demanded an investigation into Dr Carl and how he had been selected. This was passed round the academic grapevine and signed by some 1,400 academics and students from the UK to Mexico and Taiwan, only a fraction of whom can have had much idea of what was going on.

Nevertheless an investigation was held. Afterwards, the Master of St Edmunds, The Hon Matthew Bullock, made the announcement everyone wanted. His statement amounted to a grovelling apology to the student body. It said Dr Carl’s work did not ‘fulfil the criteria we expected for academic scholarship’ and announced that Dr Carl had left. Within days Dr Carl became an academic unperson: even the original announcement of his election has been airbrushed from the college website.

That the college chose to cave in to a leftish academic lynch-mob seems pretty clear. The master’s complete omission of any reference to the open letter and his implicit suggestion that St Edmunds was merely responding conscientiously to concerns raised by its student body is disingenuous. Colleges do not remove fellows on the basis of student pressure to do so.

But a closer look at the master’s statement shows that there is more to the affair than this.

For one thing, the thesis hinted at by the master – that the whole debacle could be reduced to an academically informed determination of poor scholarship, with politics an irrelevant side issue – will not hold water. True, Dr Carl had published lightweight pieces in a couple of academically dodgy journals (Mankind Quarterly and OpenPsych). But a glance at his publication list, on the basis of which he was presumably elected, shows a highly impressive academic CV, including impeccable journals such as PLoS ONE, the American Sociologist, European Union Politics, Electoral Studies, the British Journal of Sociology and the Political Quarterly. Cambridge colleges do not make a habit of terminating research fellows at the beginning of their tenure merely because of a few dud articles in a line of very good ones. Indeed, Sir Patrick Elias, the very shrewd retired judge (and ex-Cambridge academic lawyer to boot) who was asked to investigate the appointment process, was forthright: the college had, he said, ‘fairly selected the best candidate’. Given the keenness of competition for research fellowships, that is highly telling.

Secondly, note that the allegations made against Dr Carl – the offending articles, and his prior attendance at the London Conference on Intelligence – related not to what he had done while a fellow, but to activities before he had even been elected. No matter: in the master’s words, Dr Carl’s writings had had ‘a detrimental effect on the atmosphere within the college with feelings of hurt, betrayal, anger and disbelief that the college could be associated with such views’. In other words, we now have a situation where a college regards it as acceptable to elect a fellow and then remove him because it later finds out it is uncomfortable with some opinion he has previously expressed and wants to change its mind. If this is the new practice in academia, it is distinctly worrying.

Thirdly, for all the implications of a legal process impeccably conducted, the master’s statement leaves a strong suspicion that the college was desperate to do anything to avoid the storm that was breaking over it, if necessary at the expense of sacrificing the interests of a young scholar. Take a look at the list of the findings of the college’s Investigation Panel. Apart from alleged poor scholarship (see above), there were two. One was that Dr Carl had ‘collaborated with a number of individuals who were known to hold extremist views’, and that therefore his appointment ‘could lead, directly or indirectly, to the college being used as a platform to promote views that could incite racial or religious hatred, and bring the college into disrepute’. The other was the way in which Dr Carl had conducted himself with regard to his publications (by which presumably they meant that he had defended them), which, it was said, had ‘a detrimental effect on the atmosphere within the college’.

One might have thought it obvious that such matters should be irrelevant to an academic appointment. But there is a more important point. If push had come to legal shove, it seems obvious that neither finding gets remotely near providing a justification for removal of a fellow. For this the college’s own statutes require proof of ‘grave misconduct’ and a two-thirds vote of the fellows. Collaboration with the holders of lawful political views, extreme or otherwise, is hardly grave misconduct; nor, we hope, the fact that an article written in all innocence might be taken up by some boneheaded political zealot somewhere and twisted to suit his perverted purposes. And this is quite beside the fact that all these events had in any case happened before Dr Carl became a fellow, and (as Sir Patrick Elias pointed out) he had been under no duty whatever to tell the college about them unless asked.

Indeed, reading between the lines, one suspects the college knew that it might be on thin legal ice. Interestingly, the master’s statement does not announce that Dr Carl was removed from his fellowship – which one might have expected him to say if he had been – but that his position as a research fellow had become ‘untenable’. Put another way, what seems likely is that he informed Dr Carl, presumably with the connivance of a large proportion of the 60-odd fellows (the lack of objection from whom is itself cause for concern), that he would do well to resign, with the vague threat that his life would be made impossible at the college if he did not. If this is right, the sanctimonious reiteration at the end of the master’s statement of the college’s commitment to academic free speech rings somewhat hollow. What really mattered, it seems, was saving the college’s record as a promoter of diversity, inclusion and the abhorrence of racism. The image was everything; the principle of free speech, and the idea of a college as a place for debate and vigorous argument, came a poor second.

Andrew Tettenborn is a professor of commercial law and a former Cambridge admissions officer.

Picture by: Medium.

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