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Is it even possible to be both political and professional?

“British men and boomers [are] statistically more likely to be vermin than women and the young”, tweeted Dr Andy Williams, a Cardiff University lecturer from the School of Journalism. This tweet has caused outrage among many Conservatives and students, including former Tory assembly group leader Andrew RT Davies who wrote to the vice-chancellor of Cardiff University in protest.

Earlier on, Dr John Jewell, another academic from the same department, similarly made a tweet accusing Conservative voters of being devoid of a “social conscience”

This is not the first time that professionalism has come into conflict with political views.  For instance, former Cathay Pacific staff accused bosses of firing them for supporting Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors in August this year. Rebecca Sy, former head of a flight attendants’ association, said she was fired without explanation after her managers saw her Facebook account. 

Earlier this month, Mesut Ozil, a footballer playing for Premier League club Arsenal, condemned China’s crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minorities in the country’s western region on Twitter.  This caused repercussions to his career, with the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV pulling a game between Arsenal and Manchester City from its programme, as well as some Chinese audiences and Arsenal fans calling for a ban on his games. 

I believe that it is a positive sign that many professors and academics are willing to voice their ideas, are critical of the status quo and encourage students to do the same as well.

While there have been many instances in which politics and professionalism have come into conflict, I personally do not think that there is a problem with expressing one’s own opinion, and would argue it is fundamentally wrong for someone’s career to take a hit from expressing their political views.  It is particularly important to note that Dr Williams tweeted from his personal social media account, certainly not representing the views of Cardiff University.

In fact, I believe that it is a positive sign that many professors and academics are willing to voice their ideas, are critical of the status quo and encourage students to do the same as well. Research conducted by the Adam Smith Institute showed that almost less than 12% of academics support right-wing or conservative parties, and that the number of British academics who are liberal or left-wing has been steadily on the rise since the 1960s. In this day and age, where neoliberal ideas seem to dominate politics (as seen from the Washington Consensus and the boom in voter support for populist parties and figures) I would argue it is critical for students to scrutinise and reflect on politics in a way that challenges the existing establishment. In this particular incident, actively criticising the Conservative Party reminds students to maintain a healthy scepticism of incumbent leadership.

At the same time, it is important to note that there is a fine line between being political and being disrespectful. As a result of his status as an academic who holds a position of authority in a university, I believe the derogatory term ‘vermin’ to be offensive and problematic.

Ultimately, universities should be safe places that simultaneously welcome different perspectives and invite critical thinking.

His use of such a pejorative term is surely incompatible with maintaining a sense of inclusion in the classroom.  Ultimately, around 50% of the general public supports right-wing and conservative parties. His words effectively exclude alternative opinions, contributing to an environment where people may be fearful of voicing different viewpoints.

Although Dr Williams justifies his tweet by saying he was quoting his political hero, Aneurin Bevan, it is important to be aware of their different positions. While politicians aim to seek power within an ideologically partisan political structure and frequently use soundbites as a political strategy, lecturers have the responsibility of upholding a secure and open environment in an academic setting.

As James Wallice, president of Cardiff University Conservative Association, says, it is a “real shame” to see young Conservatives being “attacked” by senior lecturers. In this respect, I would say that Davies rightly questions whether Dr Williams’ actions show an “inclusive and tolerant atmosphere”. Ultimately, universities should be safe places that simultaneously welcome different perspectives and invite critical thinking, where people of every background and belief system feel valued.

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