On Louise Richardson and the avoidance of homophobic teaching

Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson is causing quite a stir this week. For one, she gets paid a lot of money – which is not as much as footballers or bankers and less than her peers in the US. Prof. Richardson’s salary is within the ‘going rate’ for VCs at the moment and certainly isn’t at the top of the VC pay scale and it is in no way linked to high fees, she says, but is fairly standard for a VC of a big university. This hype about it, according to Richardson, comes from a ‘mendacious media’ and ‘tawdry politicians’ and has nothing to do with student fees, there are student fees because the government is subsidizing Universities less than they used to.

There are clearly two sides to this issue, Richadson believes her pay is fair while others think it is exorbitant to pay a VC this much when academic faculty are paid less and students are paying large yearly fees for university access. What do you think? Let’s discuss both positions.

And that is how you facilitate a discussion as a teacher. What do I think? I’m not going to tell you, it is irrelevant to this discussion, I am more interested in listening to what you think and hearing your arguments – pro and con. What I wouldn’t say, or rather shouldn’t say, as a teacher is ‘you are a bunch of snowflake whingers about this fee business and I think you should pay me extra just for the honor of having me as your tutor and oh and by the way I don’t like gay people’. (For the record, I don’t believe this. I have a healthy disdain for using the word ‘snowflake’ to be dismissive of people with real concerns and whether or not I like someone has nothing to do with their sexuality.)

I agree with Louise Richardson’s statement that:

“As teachers, we must model to our students how to respond to views they find objectionable, not to avoid them. We must be robust in defending free speech against those who wish to constrain it,”

We as teachers must absolutely defend free speech and we must absolutely teach our students to respond to views which they find objectionable and not avoid the tricky stuff. So far so good right?

But what is not OK as a tutor or teacher is expressing your personal bigoted (or non-bigoted) views to students in tutorials or lectures. I, honestly, cannot think of an example as to when this would ever be OK. Oxford spent a long time not letting women into many colleges at the University. Presumably when they did show up, if a tutor who told their new female tutee ‘I don’t think women are smart enough to be here’, Louise Richardson would have expected a first year undergraduate in a male-dominated University to just challenge them to enhance the academic discussion? Or maybe she would have told this new student – it’s up to you to figure out why smart people have views like that? It’s a bit ‘blame the victim’ if you ask me.

We are all entitled to our personal views, and holding these views shouldn’t bar us from employment, but as the The Oxford SU LGBTQ+ Campaign says:

“recognise that individuals are entitled to personal views and opinions, we see no way in which these are relevant to an academic context, and believe that the expression of such views has detrimental effects which go far beyond making students feel ‘uncomfortable’.

And this is the truth of it.

Defending free speech and facilitating difficult discussions is one thing, making students feel inferior and unwelcome is another. I am not sure what Prof. Richardson really meant, but her words certainly suggest that she is not willing to call out her staff for being bigoted towards their students. As one of her staff, if I did this I think that my employer, Oxford University, should call me out for it as it is not acceptable, professional behaviour from a teacher no matter how ‘smart’ I may or may not be. Being ostensibly intelligent does not mean you can behave like a bigot towards your students. Can you imagine someone reasonably suggesting ‘She says really racist things during lectures, but she’s a smart racist so this makes it OK’? Well I can, because when I grew up in the Southern US people did say things like this and substitute ‘homophobic’ for ‘racist’ and this is exactly what Richardson’s words sounded like to me.

Writing this post makes me entirely uncomfortable. I am employed by Oxford University but I feel it is rather important to say. I guess, in the end, I am just following my VC’s advice that if you see ideas that make you uncomfortable then it is up to you to challenge them.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain is a bio-physicist in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Oxford (UK), but she blogs in a personal capacity. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain
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2 Responses to On Louise Richardson and the avoidance of homophobic teaching

  1. Flora says:

    From dirt bag climber to rough river guide, you soar, Dr.Sylvia Mclain.
    Thank you for sharing your well articulated thoughts. Luv ya, Honey!

  2. Teresa says:

    The sharpest edge still hits blunting stuff from time to time. It’s a worthy project though. Thanks for keeping after it with your own keen observations. You do us proud.