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Queen's University cannot simply give in to murderous thugs

By Ruth Dudley Edwards

Published 27/04/2015

Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University
Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University

I expect - indeed I sincerely hope - Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, is feeling bruised by several recent kickings - including some from contributors to this newspaper - but they were so deserved I felt impelled to join in.

This is not least because I've been thinking of lecturer Edgar Graham, murdered outside the university library in 1983 for the crime of being a clever unionist, and of Michael McGoldrick, a cherished student of one of my academic friends, who had just graduated when he was shot in 1996 by the LVF for the crime of being a Catholic.

Like Fionola Meredith - who on Friday described her alma mater as lily-livered, short-sighted and censorious - it's because Queen's matters to me that I've been so furious about its craven cancellation of the symposium 'Understanding Charlie: new perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo'. It had been due to be hosted by that well-known crowd of subversives, the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities.

And yes, I know that Queen's are now hastily trying to find a way out of the mess their Vice-Chancellor has got them into, but just in case there's any possibility they make another dumb decision, here's my contribution to their deliberations.

I'm fond of Queen's: it's beautiful, I have many dear friends who are or have been academics or students there, and to my surprise and delight it gave me an honorary doctorate four years ago.

Therefore, when the Stephen Nolan Show rang last Wednesday and told me the news, I was as sad as I was furious.

It was bad enough that Professor Johnston had cited security; it was much worse that he said he was concerned about the reputation of the university.

Which is why I told Stephen Nolan that I was appalled by the cowardice of Queen's, believed that since free speech was what universities were supposed to be about Professor Johnston had trashed its reputation and that I thought he should consider his position (which most of you will know is Pompous Speak for think about resigning). At which stage Stephen Nolan asked if I would hand back my honorary degree and I said I certainly would not, since my problem was with the Vice-Chancellor, not the institution.

However (for I've known academics all my life), I added that I attributed the refusal of Queen's to provide a spokesman to panic, and guessed there were frantic discussions going on about what to do now. The last I heard, the university was claiming "this issue is not related to academic freedom and Queen's continues to uphold the importance of academic freedom in a world-class institution and has demonstrated this over many years". It was just that the institute had failed to do the necessary risk assessment, but one had now been commissioned and on May 1 Queen's would have the information necessary to make a decision.

If you believe that waffle you'll believe anything, not least since it appears a risk assessment had been completed in good time.

Here's the thing. Professor Johnston - a graduate of University College Dublin, my beloved alma mater - is an oncologist of great distinction. He has a global reputation which should attract funding and international students, all of which are good for Queen's. However, it looks as if he hasn't a clue about the exceptional record of Queen's academics in the field of humanities, and how during terrible times they laboured away patiently and bravely, speaking and writing about a society that murdered people for what they thought or were thought to think.

Edgar Graham cared about the integrity of the law; Michael McGoldrick was a mature student with a deep interest in literature who wanted to be a teacher.

My advice to the Vice-Chancellor is to 'fess up to having got it wrong because he had been scared of trouble and didn't think straight. He should apologise, promise to open the symposium and, when he does, make a ringing declaration of his commitment to free speech and intellectual inquiry and promise that Queen's will never give in to murderous thugs.

Then we'll all congratulate him on his honesty and forgive him and he can stop considering his position.

Belfast Telegraph

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