Cambridge celebrates 800 years by debating abolition of academic freedom

On 3rd February the Campaign for Cambridge Freedom won a key vote in the Regent Council to help protect the academic freedom that made the University and its acolytes (from Harvard onwards) “the Devil’s Flamethrower” (article in THE) with over 800 years of sometimes very uncomfortable discussion on the nature of truth, from Duns Scotus to Hawking (via Erasmus, Newton and Darwin) and Walsingham to Dearlove (via Turing and Klugman)..

See Ross Anderson’s “Unauthorised History of Cambridge” for a lively and typically provocative read, albeit focused on theologians, scientists and engineers – rather than the spies and spymasters who have been another of the Cambridge contributions to the search for truth (John Donne, moved from Oxford to Cambridge and graduated from neither).

Maurice Cowling taught his Peterhouse history students, like me, to take nothing on trust and particularly to mistrust “accepted wisdom”. That approach stood me in good stead when I came to be responsible for assessing the assumptions underlying proposals for big and complex systems: all-too-often a mix of mythology, misunderstanding, misinformation, self-delusion and intellectual carelessness, masquerading as “evidence”.

Top flight academics are a fractious bunch. They will do almost anything, however ruthless, for the opportunity to pursue their ideas. The temptation to bring them to heel can be overwhelming. Oscar Wilde (an Oxford man like rather too many Cabinet and Prime Ministers) could resist anything except temptation. 

The planet will survive but the human race may well not survive 800 years of global warming if the alumni of Cambridge do not help, if necessary, preserve the world’s greatest collection of creative misfits against attempts to make them kowtow to the current fashion for bureaucratic tidiness, political correctness and government targets.

I nonetheless reserve my right to be rude again, in future, about dreamers not living in the real world and to call for most of funds available, especially when limited as today, to be targetted on that which can be brought to market to make the money to fund future research programmes to make more money.

I had five fascinating years as a Corporate Planner with the Wellcome Foundation. That was the targetting that Henry Wellcome used to grow his fortune and how he intended his Trustees to continue after his death.

But he also told them to keep his programme of research into the human immune response systems going for as long as it took (or they could afford) – in parallel with the programmes on sexually transmitted diseases – because mankind will always get new poxes.

That was foresight of the kind no committee has ever shown. Fifty years later the two came together with HIV.

It’s all a matter of balance. 

I am also fairly certain that, had I been of the intellectual calibre to serve on a committee alongside some of the Cambridge minds who taught me, I too would have wished to drown them in the Cam. 

But academic freedomi, very uncomfortable though it may be at times, is far too valuable to risk – especially when under pressure from those with whom I often share prejudices.