Denial of Academic Freedom at the London Institute

THE writer of this piece in The Daily Express on 17.5.2000 is Express columnist and Woman’s Hour presenter Jenni Murray, a friend of former Women’s Hour editor and now Dean of the Media School, LCP, Sally Feldman.

Ms Murray is clearly in need of some lessons in academic freedom herself. Universities don’t have bosses – they aren’t private companies. They have administrators and managers, who are bound by law to respect the right of academic staff “to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs”.

Moreover, according to the Nolan Committee, it is not possible to detach the tradition of academic freedom from the management of the institution without damaging academic standards and administrative propriety: “the two are linked, and it is significant that secretive decision-making processes seem to have been a common feature on those occasions when things went awry.”

Yet the ‘reluctant lecturer’, Michael Chanan, a scholar of international standing, has been scapegoated and removed from his teaching as a result of his criticisms of management.

Ms Murray also gets the story wrong. It wasn’t Hitchcock the students objected to, but the fact that they were asked to spend a whole term looking at one director, and the teaching organised by the new course leader was pitched at too low a level. And it wasn’t dissident lecturers who claimed that the changes brought a “decisive lurch towards classical mainstream Hollywood” which showed a “severe lack of cultural diversity”, but the students themselves who said this. Unlike Ms Murray, they know, for example, how many “lesser known” world cinema directors were represented at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, including no less than five Latin Americans as well as directors from Tunisia, Iran, Korea and China.

It is not the dissident lecturers who are behind the times but Ms.Murray and her friends. They are just not living in the same vibrant multicultural film world as the students. Even the hard headed management Ms Murray extols is out of date, especially the Birtian kind, which John Birt’s successor at the BBC, Gregg Dyke, has repudiated. According to Dyke, Birt’s regime was characterised by a “climate of fear” as well as too much management jargon and bureaucracy, yet this is the style of management which the Dean brought to the college when she transferred from the BBC two and a half years ago.

Perhaps the most distasteful aspect of Ms Murray’s piece is her condescension towards students. She writes that the episode “seems an example of the outmoded loony ideology of the Seventies that’s left so many young people knowing everything about obscure Caribbean poets and nothing about Shakespeare and Milton.” It’s one thing to defend Shakespeare and Milton, but the implication that a figure like the Nobel laureate Derek Walcott is to be classed as “an obscure Caribbean poet” is a blatant example of cultural arrogance and an insult to students who come from or have attachments to Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America and other places on the map of world cinema, of whom there are quite a number since the course has an international reputation. One of the reasons for this reputation is that until now the aim has been precisely not to privilege Hollywood, or anywhere else, which also attracts home students who come on the course to learn – among many other things – about these other film-makers, whose work can hardly be seen because, like Jenni Murray, the distributors seem bent on keeping the lesser-known aspects of world cinema lesser known.

As for Ms Murray, as she goes to give her lectures, she should ponder her own headline: ‘Let the things we teach reflect the real world’.

Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, 25 May 2000