A prominent gay councillor has responded to claims by the head of Oxford University that her job is not to stop homophobia within the university.
The shocking comments came from Professor Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Now Oxford City councillor Tom Hayes has blasted the uni boss as “wrong” in a letter to Professor Richardson.
Professor Richardson was speaking in London at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit when she made the comments.
According to the BBC, she said: “I’ve had many conversations with students who say they don’t feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality.
“They don’t feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views.
“And I say, ‘I’m sorry, but my job isn’t to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I’m interested in making you uncomfortable’.
“If you don’t like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that.
“Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do.”
Oxford City Council’s community safety lead has now written to the professor condemning her comments.
Dear Prof. Richardson,
I hope this letter reaches you well. I’m an elected city councillor in Oxford, my city council’s Executive Board Member for Community Safety, and an LGBTQ person.
Students should confront uncomfortable and difficult subjects as part of their education. It’s right that students and their tutors should hold different views about classical texts, ending poverty, or any other appropriate subject for debate. Homophobia is not one side of a balanced debate. I’ve been a research fellow at a U.S. university and hold an Oxbridge degree, and my experience of both environments and how they foster critical thinking and reject prejudice has been positive.
It’s simply not acceptable for students to face prejudiced tutors who will propagate hateful views and pass off discrimination as debate. The University has a responsibility to provide a supportive environment for all students. I have to disagree with you: it is your job to stop homophobic views.
As I understand your recent remarks, you are proposing debates—conducted in the academic settings provided by the University—which centre on whether or not students are equal human beings on the basis of their sexual orientation. That’s wrong. You could replace the word homophobia in your comments with racism, sexism, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, and any other closed-minded prejudice. Is it also your intention to tell young black or Asian, Jewish or Muslim students that they should, to quote your words, “engage” with “smart” professors who “express views against them?”
The assumption that a homophobe, racist or sexist will go on discriminating because they haven’t been debated properly is misguided. Your comments seem to me—and a large number of people—to misunderstand the fabric of hate as well as the power dynamics at play in any University.
Students need encouragement to report inappropriate comments, especially if they fear adverse repercussions for their academic studies and the possibility of tutors withholding references. They don’t need a Vice-Chancellor saying prejudice would be acceptable in an academic environment.
As Oxford City Council’s Executive Board Member for Community Safety, I work with a wide range of people and bodies in the city to encourage anyone who experiences or sees hate crime to report it. Oxford is seeing an increase in hate crime reports in the city, with recent figures showing reports of racist and homophobic incidents rising by more than 40 per cent. in a year. I ask you to join this effort to press everyone living and studying in the city to tell the relevant authorities about all experiences of prejudice based on disability, race, religion, transgender identity, and sexual orientation.
I’m glad that prejudice seems to be an exception among University staff and that so many of the University’s staff call out prejudiced comments whenever they’re aired. As Vice-Chancellor, you are in a privileged position of authority to stand up to bigotry and I would urge you to use your platform to speak out against discrimination on behalf of your students, staff, and the University itself.
Please do get in touch by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you want to share any views or would be open to a meeting with me and other relevant individuals with a focus on tackling prejudice.
Councillor Tom Hayes
Tom Hayes is an Oxford City Councillor, City Council Cabinet Member for Community Safety and member of LGBT Labour. He tweets @CllrTomHayes.