An Oxford Vice-Chancellor’s Homophobic Comments Prove Why Safe Spaces Are So Necessary

by JR Thorpe

Earlier this month, Louise Richardson, the vice-chancellor of Oxford University, spoke at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit about a variety of hot topics in education — but one comment she made about students' responses to homophobia has gotten the LGBTQ community in the UK up in arms. The comments have raised big questions about the importance of safe and inclusive learning environments, the real nature of privilege, and what it really takes to make a university a place for all.

According to the BBC, Richardson said the following about LGBTQ students at Oxford:

"I've had many conversations with students who say they don't feel comfortable because their professor has expressed views against homosexuality. They don't feel comfortable being in class with someone with those views. And I say, 'I'm sorry, but my job isn't to make you feel comfortable. Education is not about being comfortable. I'm interested in making you uncomfortable'. If you don't like his views, you challenge them, engage with them, and figure how a smart person can have views like that. Work out how you can persuade him to change his mind. It is difficult, but it is absolutely what we have to do."

Understandably, there was backlash. Over 2,600 Oxford staff, students, and alumni signed a petition condemning the remarks. (Full disclosure: my husband, myself and many of our friends are members of the Oxford community, and signed the petition.) The university released a statement explaining that, "Whilst the University of Oxford is proud to protect academic freedom to discuss and debate issues, the University does not tolerate any form of unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation" [sic]. But it didn't apologize for anything the vice-chancellor herself said, or walk back the most problematic aspect of her remarks: that minority students are somehow responsible for educating their teachers about bigotry, and that anybody who rejects this idea is just 'uncomfortable'. It's a point of view that has implications for a lot of big issues in our colleges, from safe spaces to trigger warnings, and it needs to be talked about.

Why "Challenging Views" Isn't The Right Way To Deal With Bigoted Teachers

If you're not seeing a problem with what Richardson's suggesting that LGBTQ students do, there's a parallel to be made that might make it more clear. As LGBTQ news outlet Pink News, commenting on Richardson's statements, remarked acidly, "Professor Richardson did not say if she similarly believes the onus is on black students to ‘prove’ to racist professors that they are wrong." That's a big part of the issue: Richardson's stance is very much making it the job of LGBTQ students to 'fix' their educators, who are in a position of power when it comes to their education.

Bigotry in the classroom is also not just an intellectual position that can be gently debated, like your opinion on what Shakespeare meant in one of his sonnets. It has real implications for how students are treated and what educational opportunities they receive. British writer Jeanette Winterson recalled in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? that, as a student of English at Oxford's St. Catherine's College in the 1980s, her tutor informed her that she was the "token woman" — and proceeded to completely ignore her, leaving her to teach herself. As a lesson on how bigotry can materially affect what people get out of the classroom, it's brutally elegant.

Treating homophobia (or racism, or sexism) like a discussion point assumes that students should feel perfectly OK with debating a person who a) has control over a large part of their future, and b) might have gone out of their way to insult, humiliate, or ostracize them. This is not a student's job. Under the Equality Act 2010, sexual orientation is a protected characteristic in the UK, and it's illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ students directly, indirectly, or via victimization or harassment. And that includes "unwanted conduct that has the purpose or effect of creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the complainant." (This isn't the case in the United States, though some people hope that the Supreme Court might start to look at cases regarding sexual orientation soon.) It's not the job of LGBTQ students to look after themselves in the face of bigotry; it's the job of institutions bound by law and policy to create environments where they're not threatened or harassed.

Protection against homophobia in the classroom is a big deal. Human Rights Watch released a survey in 2016 that showed that LGBTQ high school students across the United States face an onslaught of prejudice and difficulty from both peers and teachers — with seriously negative results for their health and education. Figuring out how to deal with this is a constant problem for LGBTQ activists worldwide, but nobody has seriously suggested that LGBTQ students try to change the minds of the people who are meant to be teaching them.

No, People Who Protest Against Prejudice Aren't "Uncomfortable"

The other big issue with Richardson's statement is that it assumes that LGBTQ people who don't like their professors spouting homophobic nonsense are just being "intellectually uncomfortable." (As if 'gays are lesser beings' is somehow on par with understanding what Kant was saying.) There isn't anything academically cowardly about LGBTQ people not wanting to engage with homophobic teachers. If anything, they likely know those attitudes all too well, come up against them regularly in daily life, and have been fighting against discrimination and its pervasive effects for the majority of their young lives. It's hardly a new, "unfamiliar" idea to young gay people that people hold prejudice against them, nor something that they need to "challenge" intellectually.

Discussions about "comfort" in academic environments have popped up a lot in recent years, largely about trigger warnings: warnings ahead of time about distressing content in courses. People against these warnings tend to argue that they're making students into "snowflakes" who aren't willing to confront hard or upsetting topics like rape or violence. In reality, however, trigger warnings are designed to help students who have serious trauma issues navigate their courses safely. If somebody who's been sexually assaulted has a flashback and massive panic attack as a result of a lecture on rape, they're hardly going to be able to get the best out of their educational experience. Trigger warnings aren't weakening debate; they're the equivalent of allergy warning labels on food. Many people won't have problems, but those who do will have the opportunity to make safer choices.

The Oxford scandal is a brand of the same sort of conflict, but it's also got a difference: casual homophobia by lecturers isn't on the syllabus. It doesn't fit an "educational" agenda. The responsibility of universities to create safe, equal environments for their students doesn't mean they need to step away from discussing delicate issues. Indeed, open arguments are one of the big ways new generations learn to deal with complicated topics. But people can't have those discussions, or properly learn about aerodynamic engineering or the history of Belgium, or Mandarin grammar, if the person in charge creates a seriously toxic environment from the start.

The Real Risks Of Homophobic College Lecturers

Universities badly need to make LGBTQ people welcome and safe. A survey of LGBTQ college kids across 217 institutions in 2015 found that between 50 and 75 percent of them had experienced some form of on-campus harassment. Though TIME reported in 2014 that gay students are seen as a "growth industry" for campuses across the United States, the problem of LGBTQ-unfriendly college experience carries high risks. Statistics show that LGBTQ college students have a much higher suicide risk than non-queer ones, for example. And the examples set in place by educational figures are important. A survey of British LGBTQ students in 2008 found that much of their on-campus harassment came from other students and only 4 percent from staff, but students who witness homophobia in their lecturers and tutors certainly aren't going to get the message that it's unacceptable.

The problem isn't just about students; it's also about staff. LGBTQ academics and professionals can find that universities make excellent workplaces, but 17 percent of queer university staff in the UK have experienced homophobic name-calling and 13 percent have been harassed, according to a survey in 2016. On a very basic level, that's not exactly a charming work environment.

So no, being a university devoted to "equality and fairness" doesn't mean that LGBTQ students should have to face down homophobia in their teachers alone. If they are, the only lesson they'll learn is that their intellect is unwelcome and their safety isn't important. And that sort of education can have terrible consequences.