Dissent and Debate in the Modern University

Understanding Contemporary Politics: Dissent, Debate and the University

Universities encourage dissent. Their premise is to criticise all established knowledge and all dominant conventions. Sometimes, caught up in the day-to-day activity of teaching, meeting, marking, talking and completing admin – we forget that simple premise. Here we generate new ideas; we encourage wild speculation; we challenge students to change the world. It is a dangerous privilege, central to all teaching and research, yet simultaneously a threat to everything we take for granted. It causes conflict – with University managers, with trade unions, with colleagues. Dissent, so integral to the very idea of a University, seeps seamlessly into every aspect of our working lives. We question our disciplines, how we teach, how we are managed, and research pushes us beyond what others accept. No authority is immune from that most horrible of questions: why? This Radical Futures blog – Understanding Contemporary Politics – holds no prisoners. In a world where old certainties have unravelled; where the distinction between truth and lies is impossible to police; where humans have destroyed the planet that fosters all life – no authority can limit the questions we pose to each other. During the next academic year, colleagues from around the University will write a weekly blog about the contemporary world. They will reflect on the political challenges we all face, present challenging ideas from their own research, and dare the University community to think again. In that critical, though friendly, spirit let me anticipate three of the questions we will pose – and invite others to participate in the conversations we will engender.


Environmental Emergency: The generations born in the four decades after World War 2 have destroyed the planet. Is Brighton University doing enough to address the climate emergency? It has committed to a zero carbon footprint by 2050, rather than 2030, the target set by the town council and demanded by environmental and climate experts. Is it right to delay the declaration of a climate emergency unlike 7000 HE institutions across the globe, including Sussex across the road? What responsibilities do you have? Should you stop flying, destroy your car, become a vegan and occupy bridges in London? Should you challenge our University to act more radically? What changes will you make to ensure that this happens? Should we ban all cars from the University and knock down the new car park on the Moulescoomb site? Perhaps the University strategy is prudent. It allows us to change the world in a considered manner. Is prudence a virtue, a form of practical wisdom? Perhaps prudence fiddles as the world burns?


Brexit: Does Brexit represent the democratic wishes of the British people or does it mark the end of Britain as a nation? Are those of us who oppose it a whinging academic elite, prone to scaremongering as we sit in the elitist ivory tower? Alternatively, was Brexit the consequence of years of racist scaremongering, by the political elite, by right wing newspapers, by those who inherited the mantle of Oswald Mosley? Is Brexit a symptom of the worst forms of populist politics? Perhaps populism is the boost democracy needs, an oxygen tank for the decrepit political system build by the generation that destroyed the planet. Was the Brexit referendum even democratic or was it the result of lies, of the manipulation of information, advertising and facts by our current Prime Minister?


Free Speech? Talking of Boris Johnson, are there limits to what we can say about him, to the ways we might insult his raffish, tousled insouciance? Should the University defend the right of anyone to speak even if they are racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic and bigoted? Would you be comfortable welcoming the Prime Minister to deliver a public lecture? There is no free speech in the world we live in. The powerful and the bigoted always get more airtime. If so, should the University refuse platforms to the bigots, those who bestride the political stage and use the language of offence popularised by Donald Trump? How far do we go with these policies? Perhaps we should boycott academics from all of those states that foster war, violence and conflict against minorities, and against civilians. The list is long – the US, the UK, Turkey, Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Syria, Hungary, Poland, Australia…in fact almost every country in the world. An academic boycott of the whole globe would fast-forward our commitment to achieving zero carbon emissions. Alternatively, do all bans and boycotts destroy the one space where we should debate everything, without limit?


Whatever your views, the decisions we make affect the lives of others – of colleagues, friends and families, of those we will never know, of future generations yet to be born.  This Understanding Contemporary Politics blog challenges us to question our own orthodoxies, to take nothing for granted, to test our University and our society with the withering force of dissent. It aims to do what Universities have always done – to ask fundamental questions before insisting upon easy answers; to reflect critically on the worlds we live in; to listen to others even as we make difficult decisions about how to live together.  For the rest of this academic year a blog will go live every Monday morning.

If you have something to say, if you want to think critically with your colleagues, then email the Radical Futures team on FuturesAdmin@brighton.ac.uk.

Mark Devenney,

Radical Futures

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