Joanna Williams, author of books including Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity (Palgrave, 2016) and director of CIEO, a new thinktank focused on ‘celebrating humanity’s potential’, argues in The Woke University, 8th June 2021, that this institutional model has replaced educational goals with a mission to inculcate particular values.
She describes how language is now key, with students schooled to be offended and to expect to have their identities validated. This results in actual victims being ‘lost in the disarray’, and the undermining of students potential to learn how to think and to deal with challenging ideas.
On the move to ‘decolonise the curriculum’, Williams notes that many black intellectuals ‘revelled in access to canonical works’ despite being hostile to aspects of European societies, and argues the ‘decolonise movement simply confirms mainstream academic thought’.
She notes the hypocrisy of university leaders, who both ‘think that the universities they run are systematically discriminating against black students’ and are ‘incapable of articulating the intellectual importance of universities’. Addressing the ‘ethnic attainment gap’ statistics, she argues that in reality ‘universities may be getting more right than they are prepared to acknowledge’.
Noting that ‘segregation is making a comeback’ in higher education and that ‘in the woke university, challenging racism means racialising and dividing students’, she argues that ‘black students are ill served by differential low expectations’.
Williams describes the cases of (since exonerated) Abertay University law student Lisa Keogh; Birkbeck professor Eric Kaufmann; University of Edinburgh lecturer Neil Thin; and of Open University professor Jo Phoenix with the University of Essex, noting the failure to defend them of unions which are supposed to represent academics. She contrasts the situation today with that at universities such as the Sorbonne and UC Berkeley in the ’60s.
She argues that the ‘popular disregard for academic freedom shows the extent to which the very purpose of higher education has changed’, noting the corresponding ‘abject failure of an intellectual elite to defend enlightenment values’.
Presenting the background to the current situation, she describes how criteria for admission to university have changed, starting with affirmative action; expanding to more general goals; more recent pressure to increase the number of places for black and ethnic minority students; and a tendency for some higher education institutions to go further and exercise positive discrimination.
‘The woke university has a biologically diverse but values-aligned student body taught by politically homogeneous instructors’, she argues. They are no longer bothered about ‘imparting knowledge; facilitating discussion and debate; or encouraging students to read widely, ask questions and engage in research by themselves’. Despite this, she concludes, graduates of the Woke University ‘will be fluent in an ever-shifting woke vocabulary and know the exact phrases required to have transgressors cancelled’.