Academic Freedom At the University of Nottingham

This discussion’s been going on for a while. Make sure to check out the reader comments on the THES site.

Times Higher Education Supplement


by Melanie Newman | 25 July 09

The reading lists of lecturers at the University of Nottingham’s School of Politics and International Relations are being scrutinised for material that is illegal or could incite violence.

The institution has set up a “module review committee”, made up of teaching-group heads, to advise on academics’ teaching material.

A document about the process explains that the reviews’ purpose is to provide feedback to staff on a range of issues, including the topics covered, the assessment methods used and “whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence”.

The review process has already begun, with reading lists used in the current academic year being checked retrospectively.

The committee was set up after an MA student in Nottingham’s politics department, Rizwaan Sabir, and a clerical assistant, Hicham Yezza, were arrested under anti-terrorism laws last year. Staff called the police after they discovered a copy of the Al-Qaeda Training Manual on Mr Yezza’s computer.

Mr Sabir, who was studying Islamic terrorism for his dissertation, had downloaded the manual from the internet and sent it to his friend, Mr Yezza, for printing. Both men were released without charge, although Mr Yezza was subsequently jailed for immigration offences.

The arrests provoked outrage from scholars, who claimed that they amounted to an attack on academic freedom, a claim that was strongly denied by Nottingham.

David Miller, professor of sociology at the University of Strathclyde and the convenor of Teaching About Terrorism, a study group that has members drawn from 30 universities, said Nottingham’s review policy represented a “fundamental attack on academic freedom”.

“The module review committee is a censorship committee: it can’t operate as anything else,” he said. “The university is acting as the police, one step removed.”

Senior academics at Nottingham have stressed that the committee acts only in an advisory capacity and that its operation was agreed by staff.

Steve Fielding, professor of political history at Nottingham, said: “The policy was agreed in principle at a full meeting of staff, and a working group whose membership was open to all interested staff was set up to refine the details.

“We collectively agreed the policy at a further full meeting of staff. The policy is there to protect staff from the accusation of promoting illegal acts: it is not an attempt to undermine academic freedom.”

A Nottingham spokesman said: “In total, the school teaches almost 100 modules, with reading lists comprising thousands of books and other materials. All of them have been reviewed under the process and not one has caused concern.”

Professor Miller said he was not aware of any other university that was reviewing reading lists.

Alia Brahimi, a research associate at the University of Oxford’s department of politics, specialises in al-Qaeda ideology and strategy and teaches a course on Islam in international relations, both of which require her to consult jihadi tracts.

“As far as I am aware, neither the university nor my department has seriously considered auditing or interfering with the recommended reading on my syllabus,” she said.

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2 thoughts on “Academic Freedom At the University of Nottingham

  1. I’m probably the last person who should be the first to comment on this story, never having been faculty or responsible for drawing up reading lists…Is this really news? I’m not so sure. There’s probably more going on than meets the eye on the basis of this article alone. One thing comes to mind. As far as I’m aware the material which got Sabir and Yezza into hot water last year was not on any reading list provided by the school. They were doing what every good student should be doing: going beyond the prescribed reading, thinking for themselves, i.e. doing research. As far as I recall, the university didn’t actually go overboard in their defence of the two when the police hauled them in for questioning. That was a story, of course.It strikes me that what might be going on here is not censorship as such, but self-censorship. Even though nothing has been taken off a reading list (yet?) the driving impulse here is to avoid accusations from outside of incitement to racial hatred, etc, and falling foul of various terrorism-related legislation. The police dropped any charges last year and don’t seem to have been involved with the current university initiative. It seems an unnecessary process altogether.What would be censorship, or something like it, would be to censure students for using certain source materials. Although rarely tested in court, almost all ‘jihadi’ literature could be considered glorification of terrorism, and therefore illegal or unlawful. Striking through a student’s bibliography or reporting their use of these materials would be abhorrent indeed. There are no suggestions at present that this is the situation. Context is all, and surely anyone can see that their use in an academic setting is not only fine but desirable and necessary.Anyway, I’m sure others have a different take …

  2. I think I would have to agree with you on this, Tim. Several of my students are also researching in the area and have consulted irhabi works as part of that research. I was, however, struck by one of the comments made by Dr. Pauline Eadie:

    How can there be censorship when nothing has been censored? As an academic these characters should know that no one cares for opinions or anecdotes, especially biased ill-infomed ones, only proof. Where is this proof of censorship? Is anyone banned from looking at specific material? No. Was this process democratically agreed by all members of the School? Yes. Can students and staff be assured that we are working in their best interests? Absolutely.

    To answer those questions, in order:1. By creating a self-censoring environment where people interiorize the act of censorship. Consider, by way of example, Bentham’s Panopticon….2. "Proof"? My, my…. I would suggest a close reading of Popper on the concept of "proof".3. "banned from looking at specific materials" – not yet, at least that we know of.4. What does democracy have to do with science? I would note that a similar "democratic" action created the Holy Office [the Inquisition], so I fail to see any direct causal connection between "democracy" and scholarly inquiry.5. Working in their "best interests?" Oh, please, give me a break! That is exactly the rationale used by the Holy Office which constructed the rationalization of destroying bodies to save souls.

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