Uni of Cambridge removes 'micro-aggressions' site after dons revolt

Cambridge dons raise free speech fears over new university website that allows students to anonymously report lecturers for ‘micro-aggressions’ like turning their back or raising an eyebrow

  • Report and Support set-up by University of Cambridge but removed days later
  • Deleted page intended to maintain ‘safe, welcoming and inclusive community’ 
  • But Cambridge dons slammed anonymous ‘micro-aggressions’ reporting tool  
  • Staff could have been reported for ‘raising an eyebrow’ or calling a woman ‘a girl’
  • Critics denounced new website as a serious ‘threat to traditions of free speech’ 

Leading University of Cambridge academics have slammed a website set up by the institution to report professors’ ‘micro-aggressions’ that could have included raising an eyebrow or turning their back on students.

Critics had described the Report and Support site, which could be used by those studying there to report ‘inappropriate behaviour’ from both students and staff, as a ‘threat to traditions of free speech’.

Report and Support was set live by the University of Cambridge last week but was taken down on Monday, May 24 after some ‘material was included in error’ according to the Telegraph.

The reporting tool would have allowed anonymous reports to be filed on ‘micro-aggressions’ – that included offences such as raising an eyebrow, turning your back, giving backhanded compliments or referring to a woman as a girl.

The now deleted page was set-up by the 800-year-old academic institution to create and maintain a ‘safe, welcoming and inclusive community, which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and consideration for all’, according to archived screenshots.

But top professors revolted against the implementation of the website, saying they feared for the future of ‘free and fearless discussion of ideas’ at the world-leading university.

An archived image of the University of Cambridge’s Report and Support website (above) where students could anonymously report their peers and staff members

Last week, one unnamed Cambridge don described the ‘profound shock and concern’ expressed by professors at the controversial anonymous reporting website. (File pic)

The University of Cambridge has faced criticism over its controversial new anonymous reporting tool.

Their Report and Support website stated: ‘We are committed to creating and maintaining a safe, welcoming and inclusive community, which nurtures a culture of mutual respect and consideration for all.’

According to the now-deleted web page, ‘micro-aggressions’ include ‘slights, indignities, put-downs and insults’ that target minority groups. 

These would include:

  • ‘Behaviours such as a change in body language when responding to those of a particular characteristic’.
  • Such as: ‘Raising eyebrows when a Black member of staff or student is speaking, dismissing staff or student who brings up race and or racism in teaching’.
  • ‘Backhanded compliments’.
  • ‘Avoiding or turning one’s back on certain people’.
  • ‘Being mis-gendered (especially after sharing one’s pronouns)’ 
  • Referring to a woman as ‘a girl’. 

A list published on the Report and Support website defined ‘micro-aggressions’ as ‘slights, indignities, put-downs and insults’ against minority groups.

These would have included offences such as raising an eyebrow when Black students or staff spoke, giving out backhanded compliments, mis-gendering individuals or referring to a woman as a girl. 

Last week, one unnamed Cambridge don described the ‘profound shock and concern’ expressed by professors at the controversial anonymous reporting website. 

The academic told the Telegraph: ‘The worry is if the changes are cosmetic, the basic problems including the anonymous reporting tool and highly contestable and extreme ideology will be hardwired into the ancient fabric of the university.’    

Toby Young, general secretary of the Free Speech Union, wrote to Cambridge University chiefs, claiming the website ‘proposed a system of policing speech and everyday interaction’.

Slamming the list of ‘micro-aggressions’, Mr Young of FSU said the slights make no ‘allowance for the fact that, in many cases, taking offence as such behaviour would be unreasonable.’

He continued: ‘These are all situations which may arise wholly innocently, through misunderstanding, a breakdown in communication, or a simple error.’ 

Vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope is also said to be facing a legal challenge from FSU over the contents of the website. 

The group has also promised a judicial review if something similar is reproduced by the academic institution.

The University u-turned on the Report and Share site just days after its inception and removed it after stating parts of it were uploaded ‘in error’. 

In a statement promising an investigation into the website, Prof Toope said:  ‘It has come to light that certain ancillary material was included in error’. 

‘I believe that some of the statements and examples in this material go beyond the approved policy framework and would undermine its impact.

‘The website has been temporarily taken down while that material is removed. I have asked senior staff to look into how this error occurred.’

The anonymous reporting tool would have allowed reports to be filed on ‘micro-aggressions’ that could include raising an eyebrow, or referring to a woman as a girl

A group of 25 leading academics, including Roberts Tombs (above) shared their delight at the removal of the controversial web page

A group of 25 academics, including Roberts Tombs, professor emeritus of French history, David Abulafia (Mediterranean history) and John Marenbon (philosophy) have shared their delight at the controversial website’s removal. 

The collective said: ‘We trust that whatever replaces the documentation will be fully compatible with the right to unfettered freedom of speech and expression within the law.’

In a statement on the University’s own website, it states: ‘Our community encourages and celebrates academic freedom and freedom of speech, and the University has a duty to ensure that this is not limited unnecessarily. 

‘Sometimes, we may be personally offended or upset by topics, ideas or views raised and discussed, but that does not mean this should not happen if they are within the law. ‘ 

‘Micro-aggressions’ are not a legally defined term, but several universities describe them as: ‘Everyday verbal, non-verbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.’ 

The University of Cambridge’s Human Resources department defines them as: ‘Numerous, small remarks and acts sending denigrating messages to the recipient, linked to an individual’s characteristics or status.’

At Oxford, new students ‘value identity issues ahead of open debate’, says one Prof

Students are arriving at Oxford with no idea about free speech but strident opinions on identity politics, a university professor says.

Alan Rusbridger, principal of historic college Lady Margaret Hall, said first years ‘look a bit blank’ when he introduces the concept.

These ‘very bright students’ are bewildered simply because ‘nobody has talked to them about it’, he added. But the same pupils hold ‘fierce views’ on their identity.

He said: ‘Somebody ought to have told them by the time they’re 18 and get to Oxford about the broader theory of free speech and how free speech itself is the most potent weapon.’  

The former Guardian editor gave a withering assessment of ‘no- platforming’ after ex-Home Secretary Amber Rudd had an invitation to speak at Oxford withdrawn last year after students objected to her role in the Windrush scandal.

He added: ‘If you have Oxford undergraduates who are saying we don’t feel powerful enough to take on these arguments, then I think you have a problem.’ 

On a page published on the University of Edinburgh from February, they say ‘micro-aggressions’ are the ‘most common common way racist and other forms of discrimination are expressed on a daily basis, both online and face to face.’

This latest fall-out follows a statement published by Cambridge University on free speech in the midst of a row over so-called ‘cancel culture’ in which public figures with controversial views are ostracised either online or in the real world.

Their statement read: ‘The University of Cambridge, as a world-leading education and research institution, is fully committed to the principle, and to the promotion, of freedom of speech and expression. 

‘The University’s core values are “freedom of thought and expression” and “freedom from discrimination”. 

‘The University fosters an environment in which all of its staff and students can participate fully in University life, and feel able to question and test received wisdom, and to express new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions within the law, without fear of intolerance or discrimination.’

Last year, Cambridge University’s lecturers were embroiled in a bitter row over free speech after a new rule threatened them with disciplinary action for mocking or disagreeing with people or ideas.

The University’s Council had proposed a series of rules which would require academics to be ‘respectful of the diverse identities of others’.

But critics argued that the proposals, which looked to change free speech guidelines, were ‘authoritarian’.

The controversial idea was rejected by academics in December, after they voted to protect the right to robust debate and backed amendments making it harder for public speakers to be boycotted because of their views. 

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