Cambridge University Cuts Off Nose; Face ‘Spited’.

15 Mar

Another political one – apologies to anyone desperate for another early modern fix, it’s on the way.

I dithered a bit about writing this post in the first place, because its conclusions seem so self-evident. Then I found it really hard to write, because it’s one of those issues where the other side of the argument is so plainly, so fundamentally, so wilfully wrong that it’s hard to articulate your opposition without punching the computer screen.

Here’s a story: yesterday, the Court of Discipline at Cambridge University decided to ‘rusticate’ (suspend) a fellow Ph.D student named Owen Holland for two and a half years. To give you an idea, that’s about six months shy of the length of an entire Ph.D. For this period, Mr. Holland won’t be allowed onto university property, won’t be able to consult the university’s libraries, won’t be entitled to meet with his supervisor or submit his work for examination.

What did he do? Something heinous, surely. Held an orgy in the Wren Library? Maybe he fed double espressos to bulls and let them loose in the Fitzwilliam Museum. Probably punched a Regius Professor.

Actually, he read a poem. Owen Holland was one of a group who went to protest against a speech by David Willetts, the universities minister, in the university’s Lady Mitchell Hall.

He read a piece which was repeated by those around him – the ‘human microphone’ – which you can see here. The protest went on until Willetts left without speaking.

Now, I’m not mad about the manner of the protest. I would like to have seen Willetts skewered by the Cambridge academics in the audience, embarrassed by dons just as Andrew Lansley has been embarrassed by doctors and nurses. I’d also like to have seen academics actually argue in public, rather than restricting their mutterings to common rooms and the London Review of Books (and that’s just the ones who aren’t welcoming the reforms). I wouldn’t have chosen to stop Willetts from speaking entirely. I’m far too woolly for this kind of action.

But that’s me. And frankly, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a student of the university engaged in a peaceful protest. No-one was hurt, and if anything, Willetts came away from the event less red-faced than he might have been if he’d been left to squirm onstage by good questions.

And now Owen Holland’s been kicked out of the university for two and a half years.

There’s an old chestnut in Cambridge which says that if a student rides the bronze statue of a horse in Jesus College, they get ‘sent down’ (which is a polite way of saying expelled). It’s a story that makes fun of everything that’s ‘classic Cambridge’ – obscure rules and disproportionate punishments couched in an arcane vernacular. And now we have a chap who read a poem at a protest and is being ‘rusticated’. We are through the rabbit-hole, my friends, and find ourselves in the Land of Seriously, What The Absolute Fuck.

It’s genuinely hard to understand how anyone could think that this punishment is proportionate. Even the University advocate was pushing for a term’s suspension or, perhaps, a fine. Instead, a student’s been given thirty months. Now, I’m doing a Ph.D myself, and I don’t mind saying that if I was prevented from carrying on with it for the guts of the next three years (which is, give or take, the amount of time it should take in all), I’d be hard pushed to come back and finish it. This is the kind of thing that can impact hugely on someone’s career, on their ambitions, on their life.

It’s genuinely hard, too, to understand how this can be seen as anything other than the University of Cambridge – an institution with its own proud histories of dissent, of subversion, of challenge to authority – kowtowing to an administration which is content to threaten universities with loss of funding and loss of state support. And to portray its credentials as a fine, upstanding institution that won’t stand in the way of Mr. Willetts’ notion of progress, it’s happy to fly the flag against protest, and against free thinking.

Sixty people involved with the protest – dons and students – wrote a ‘Spartacus letter’, admitting their involvement in the protest and demanding to be charged as Mr. Holland was. There has been no response from the university. What is this singling out and rash punishing of one man other than scapegoating? Actually, more. It’s bullying. The administration seems to think that, to be allowed to play with the big boys, it has to beat up on the little kids just like they do.

This isn’t what we’re meant to do, as a university. We shouldn’t be the tools of state policy. We shouldn’t hit out where freedom of protest and of dissent are at stake. We shouldn’t ignore an overwhelming general problem to punish a tiny particular. In representing Cambridge, the Court of Discipline hasn’t just misunderstood protest, or free speech: it’s forgotten what a university is supposed to be. For shame.


If you’re a member of Cambridge University, you can sign a petition here. For alumni and non-members, there’s a public petition here.


10 Responses to “Cambridge University Cuts Off Nose; Face ‘Spited’.”

  1. Mel March 15, 2012 at 1:52 pm #


  2. David Boothroyd March 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm #

    What he did was to deny someone else a hearing. The fact that he did so by reading a poem is neither here nor there; the problem with his actions was that they made it impossible for David Willetts to speak, and they also made it impossible for anyone to question Willetts about the Government’s policy and its effect on Cambridge. From the reports of the meeting it seems quite a lot of people wanted to ask such questions, and to press for changes in Government policy.

    I am not surprised that a University should stand up for the idea of policy making by open debate and not by shouting ones’ opponents down.

    • earlymodernjohn March 15, 2012 at 2:45 pm #

      I’ve said above that I wasn’t a fan of the way the protest was carried out. The question is, do you think the punishment is proportionate?

      • David Boothroyd March 15, 2012 at 5:34 pm #

        I’m glad to hear that you don’t dispute verdict, only sentence. It would be nice if people would cease retweeting the highly misleading statement “Cambridge PhD student suspended for reading a poem”.

        He has clearly been made an example of; but if he was an organiser of the demo then it might be understandable that his punishment was more severe. There is reason to presume that he was the organiser, or at least one of the organisers.

  3. Owen Woods March 15, 2012 at 3:40 pm #

    Agreed. I am not by any means a supporter of the protest, for the reasons that you outline, but the punishment is simply insane.

  4. Roger Bartlett March 16, 2012 at 11:57 am #

    Having read your post, and the comments, and watched the video, I’ve got the feeling that your emphasis is the wrong way round. Yes, the sentence may possibly be disproportionate, and it sounds too as if the university is punishing one individual for a group action. To use your own words, I’m not mad about these procedures, or a big fan of heavy-handedness by the Court of Discipline. But you are wrong to say that your woolliness ‘doesn’t matter’. Boothroyd is right. You should be much more indignant about Holland’s disgraceful denial of free speech, not only to Willetts but to the audience who had come to hear and debate with him. There are many ways to make a protest. Shouting down your opponent and denying him space to speak and to be challenged is a negation of what the university stands for.

    • Neil March 16, 2012 at 1:34 pm #

      Oh nonsense. It is not a denial of free speech to prevent someone speaking on one particular occasion. It is a denial of free speech to prevent someone from having their view known. Do you really think that Mr Willetts was prevented from having his view known? Does he not have ample and better opportunities for expressing his views? Was there any audience member who due to this protest missed the opportunity to discover Mr Willetts’ views?

      • Matthew March 17, 2012 at 7:50 pm #

        Attractive line of reasoning, Neil, but the conclusion is that only people whose views (on what, though?) aren’t known have the right to speak; and those whose views are already known can be shouted down with impunity. No platform then for George Monbiot, Al Gore, Sarah Palin, or indeed Michael Palin. We already know what Michael Palin thinks! He’s on our TV screens often enough, right? So he can p*ss off for starters.

        My view, for the record: verdict right, sentence wrong, reaction hysterical. “Cambridge is denying the right to protest!!” No it isn’t: there are, presumably, a thousand ways to protest without breaching the rules. Owen Holland used one that did. More fool him.

      • Neil March 18, 2012 at 9:56 am #

        You’re right, Matthew: on my view free speech is not denied to people whose free speech is not denied. I’m not seeing this as a decisive objection.


  1. Ian Patterson on Owen’s punishment « Reinstate Owen Holland - May 24, 2012

    […] by the university authorities, and made subject to the university’s disciplinary procedures. As earlymodernjohn asks in an eloquent blogpost today: ‘What is this singling out and rash punishing of one man other […]

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