"Shagging for chastity"?
I didnt try to go and hear David Willetts speak about the future of universities on Tuesday. A feeble excuse -- you have the Minister of State for Higher Education showing up in Cambridge for a 30 minute talk followed by an hour's discussion, and you say you are too busy, Beard? But I am now very glad that I didnt try to rearrange my life. -- because as many of you will already know -- a group of twenty or thirty students (and some senior members) disrupted his talk as he started to speak, first with a prepared chant, then occupying the stage. Willetts went home without saying a word.
If I HAD showed up I would have been furious (for pretty selfish reasons). Instead I think I feel more embarrassed, on the part of the institution. I think that Willetts' policies for universities are almost wholly misguided; and I think it is really encouraging to see students engaging with the politics of Higher Education (instead But stopping him explain his views and then discuss them, is folly.
For a start it is a terrific own goal. Willetts will go round for months saying that he had tried to talk at Cambridge but he had been forced off the stage (that's what I would say in his position anyway). But more important -- as most people I've talked to in Cambridge think -- to prevent someone (because you dont agree with them) voicing their views is to flout what the university is all about. Protest, yes; tough argument, yes. But the university (and indeed these students above many others) are committed to the principle of free speech... so what were they doing stopping it. As Simon Goldhill, the organiser of the event, characteristically put it, "you cant shag for chastity". (Quoted here)
The protestors say in reply that there is no point in "having a dialogue" with Willetts, because he doesnt listen. And the time for "debate" has gone. If that's true, then the whole principles of politics we stand for has been eroded: we are resorting to shouts, barracking and blocking our ears (and the end stop on this route is the bullet). But I dont think it is true.
It is always easy to say that the person with whom you disagree "isnt listening". (Logic: if they were listening to me, they would change their minds; they are not changing their minds, so they are not listening . . . but maybe they just don't agree.) In this case, the only people who were definitely not listening were the students. In fact, by and large, in my very limited experience, Willetts is one of those rare ministers who ARE prepared to go out and discuss his proposals widely.
Looking at the video of the occasion, though, I had a second reaction. The event had not attracted a packed audience. If it hadnt been for the student protestors, it would have looked decidedly thin. Perhaps most of us felt as busy as I did. Maybe we had all got tired with Willetts after the "Willetts vote" (which ironically ended in a dead heat). But maybe the students should concentrate on activising the university at large.