Dear Brother Cornel West,
We are writing to you as student and faculty members of Cambridge Defend Education, a group which has, over the last three years taken a principled stance to defend the university against privatisation and increasing social exclusion, the retrograde forces about which you spoke so eloquently last week. Our vision of the university is that of a place of critical thinking and contestation; we have fought for this vision at some personal and collective cost—in the case of some individuals, a very great cost. We were, therefore, heartened and reinvigorated by your inspirational fighting words last week.
In November 2011, after months of struggle in which we had joined our fellow students and teachers across Britain to resist the Coalition government’s swingeing cuts to publicly-funded higher education and the tripling of tuition fees to unaffordable levels for many, we were impelled to undertake a form of nonviolent direct action. Over the many months leading up to this action, large numbers of us had been part of a year of protest which included the ‘Occupation’ of the university’s Senior Combination Room, petitions, letters, peaceful blockades, national and local demonstrations, and strikes. We had elicited no response from those in power; they continued undeterred on their destructive path.
The Universities minister, David Willetts, who was responsible for the most destructive and ideological changes to the public university in Britain, had been invited to speak on the same platform you are now occupying under the aegis of CRASSH. We decided to use the only resource we had to hand as we faced the monolith of the neoliberal decimation of the public university: the spoken word. As Willetts took the stage, thirty of us, both students and lecturers, used the ‘people’s microphone’ technique to perform a poem containing our message to the government about the policies that Mr Willetts was implementing at the time. Following the example set by so many student sit-ins and anti-war protests over the last century, we then ‘occupied’ the stage as a symbolic act of recovering our university. Mr Willetts chose at that point to leave.
It is what followed next that we feel you will wish to know about. One of our number was singled out for prosecution and punishment by the University authorities even as scores of faculty members and students turned themselves in noting that the action had been collective. As it happened, only one academic not acting as a Court official was prepared to collude in this patently unfair process and testify against this lone student, made even more vulnerable by being singled out thus: the director of CRASSH, Professor Simon Goldhill. To our regret, he did so zealously.
The subsequent ‘exemplary’ punishment awarded to this student made national and international news for its severity: he was suspended for a staggering seven terms (two and a half years) and debarred from entering the university premises during that period. After a sustained campaign and enormous support from across the university and nation (including a petition signed by 3000 people), the student’s punishment was reduced to one term with a warning attached to this sentence that the judges would not be this ‘lenient’ to future protesters. This whole process did indeed have an immensely chilling effect across the campus: it has helped create a culture of fear and silencing that few are now prepared to face down. Appearances notwithstanding and outside the smart seminar room environment, official hostility towards critical thought and activism has been intensified and consolidated.
As we continue the struggle despite diminished numbers and in the face of difficulty, we draw courage from comrades such as you. We look forward to hearing you in the coming weeks but we felt that you would wish to know more about the platform on which you stand. You will be alert, we know, to the ways in which an institution can act as a very real victimiser in one aspect and attempt, very deliberately, to project a more progressive image in another. We have been pilloried as opposers of free speech and ‘totalitarians’, as those who protest and challenge the status quo often are. As you yourself say of political struggle, it is ’a beautiful thing because there is joy in it but there are huge burdens.’
When you speak to us in the coming days, perhaps you can guide us by addressing the question which you yourself posed last week; it is one that has troubled us in the face of our own struggles: ‘What does integrity do in the face of oppression?’
Yours in solidarity,
Students and academics of Cambridge Defend Education