“Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” (John Donne; Meditation 17). Similarly, when an academic speaks it is with their own authority, and not as an “official spokesman” for their university unless they explicitly (and officially) claim to do so. Of course, any academic is always associated with their institution(s) and it is this association in part that legitimates the greater weight given by many in society to their statements. But the claim by UEL (University of East London) that it had good cause to suspend a professor over comments he made in advance of the G20 summit in London in 2009 (and the protests expected to surround it, which they did) regarding police expectations and violence because “the comments brought the university into disrepute” is utterly specious. These statements by university managers are reported in a recent THE article regarding a subsequent case between the professor and the university on which I make no comment here. What I find utterly abhorrent is the idea that any statement made by an academic could lead to a suspension on the grounds of “bringing the university into disrepute” unless that statement can be found to be factually inaccurate or an illegal statement (such as incitement to violence). And then the suspension should only happen after a suitable process (in the case of illegal speech, that process should be the conclusion of a court case). No academic speaks for their university rather than themselves unless they are officially and clearly doing so. The assumption when any academic speaks is that they are speaking as an individual academic.

Attempts to reverse this assumption are part of the rising swell of managerialism in universities with the management seeing themselves as constituting “the unviersity” and the staff as being “merely” employees. This is damaging to both our universites and our society, further undermining the ability of academics to “speak truth to power”. While academics are not perfect, someone in a free society needs to be in a position to be critical of power and received wisdom, and academics should be some of those best placed to do so. Undermining the academic freedom of academics by suspending them for statements that the senior managers feel is poor PR should not be tolerated. The fact that the professor in question was also a senior local academic union activist also raises questions about the possible targetting of academic union activists by university managers in an attempt to further undermine the strength of the voice academics have in deciding the direction of their institutions.