Hypocrisy from the Ivory Tower: UK Edition

“We do not bully our teachers, and we will sue any who say that we do!”

It sounds like a headline from the Onion, but these words of Orwellian doublespeak also could have come from Queen’s University Belfast. In response to an article in the summer 2012 issue of The Independent Review, the university is reportedly considering legal action against the author, Aviezer Tucker. His transgression? His article, “Bully U: Central Planning and Higher Education,” takes the school’s administrators to task for creating what he claims is a climate hostile to high academic standards and a spirit of open inquiry.

Here’s how the British newspaper The Independent (no relation to the Independent Institute) reports the conflict:

A whistleblowing professor has lifted the lid on what he brands the “corrupt” exam system at universities in which lecturers are being pressured to pass underperforming students.

Aviezer Tucker, a former academic at Queen’s University Belfast, said lecturers are under pressure to comply because their performance is assessed on the basis of grades students obtain.

In an article for The Independent Review: A Journal of Political Economy, Professor Tucker, who now works in the US, describes the relentless pursuit of academic targets by UK university managers: “Like central planners in general, they have measured their success by the quantity of what they produce rather than by its quality.”

The problem is hardly unique to Queen’s University Belfast, although it seems particularly acute there, according Tucker, as the following passage from his Independent Review article suggests:

Almost every issue of the U.K. trade weekly Times Higher Education recounts conflicts between managers who cannot tolerate criticism and demand obedience and members of the faculty who are used to a culture of open critical discussion. The University and College Union conducts surveys of bullying in U.K. academia and publishes a table of the most bullying universities in the country, a sad parody on the “best colleges” tables of U.S. News & World Report. The worst bullying university, with 17 percent of staff reporting being always or often bullied, was the University of East London. The worst member of the Russell Group of 20 self-selected top research universities in the United Kingdom was Queens University Belfast (nicknamed “Bully U”), with 12 percent of staff reporting constant or frequent bullying (Torney 2008).

(The citation of Torney, incidentally, references a Belfast Telegraph article available here.)

Tucker’s criticism of Queen’s University Belfast, it’s worth noting, takes place within the context of a broader argument about the hazards of a central-planning mindset in academia in Europe and the United Kingdom. For similar literature on the politicization of American academia, the interested reader may wish to consult the Independent Institute books The Academy in Crisis, edited by John W. Sommers; Restoring Free Speech and Liberty on Campus, by Donald A. Downs; Faulty Towers, by Ryan C. Amacher and Roger E. Meiners; and The Diversity Myth, by David Sacks and Peter Thiel.

Carl P. Close is a Research Fellow and former Executive Editor for Acquisitions and Content at the Independent Institute and former Assistant Editor of The Independent Review.
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