New Oxford vice-chancellor bats for free speech

Saturday, Jan 16, 2016,15:35 IST By Metrovaartha A A A

London | Oxford University’s first female vice-chancellor has stressed the importance of free speech and allowing extremist views to be aired on campus to teach students how to counter ideas they find objectionable.

Professor Louise Richardson, who took charge of her new post recently, said she was comfortable with institutions giving platforms to extreme speakers as it is the best way to challenge their views.

We need to expose our students to ideas that make them uncomfortable so that they can think about why it is that they feel uncomfortable about and what it is about those ideas that they object to, she said. Asked by ‘The Daily Telegraph’ if that meant London-based groups like Cage known to voice extremist views should be welcomed on campus, she added: Provided that they can be countered, I think that we should let them be heard.

In that way we model to our students how you counter ideas you find objectionable. Six universities are currently being investigated over allegations that they allowed meetings to be held on campus during which Cage speakers, unopposed, advised students how to avoid being de-radicalised by the UK government’s anti-terror Prevent strategy.

Richardson has expressed concerns over the Prevent duty, which requires teachers to spot radicalisation among students, because she worries Islamic students would feel they are suspect.

She told the newspaper: I have real concerns about prevent. I absolutely share the objectives of the government in introducing [the duty]. I am concerned that whole groups of students may see themselves as being suspect.

The Prevent legislation is not explicitly anti Islamist but it’s widely perceived to be directed against extreme Islamists and I worry that Islamic students would feel that they are suspect.

I have reservations about prevent but of course we will abide by it. Richardson, who until late last year was vice- chancellor at St Andrews University, spent her first Sunday in her new city figuring out the location of the 38 colleges that make up the totality of Oxford University.