Is political correctness eroding universities’ mission?

A Swedish professor who raised concern that a growing culture of ‘political correctness’ imposed by universities is stifling open debate and academic freedom, particularly about free speech and gender studies, has caused a heated debate on social media.

Professor Emerita Inger Enkvist of Lund University, writing in Göteborgs-Posten on 23 September, said two trends are challenging open debate at universities. These are the trend to “protect students against thoughts that question their beliefs or feelings” and the tendency to treat gender perspectives as being above science.

"University professors are now sent on courses teaching ‘inclusion’ and they are told not to raise controversial themes in their lectures since the student audience might harbour groups or individuals that might feel offended,” she wrote.

“Students are encouraged to snitch on their teachers or colleague students, for instance for sexist or racist attitudes. In this way a feeling of snitching and fear has developed," she argued, "where everybody is afraid of each other".

Within days the article had generated 66 comments on Facebook, several of them claiming that Enkvist has a longstanding agenda attacking the Swedish education system.

In her article, Enkvist said that all professors in Sweden now are aware that they might be accused of sexism or racism.

Male teachers have to have their doors open when talking to a woman student and counselling rooms at universities are now built with large glass windows so that everybody can observe what is going on.

At difficult meetings between a professor and a student a third person is now often invited in as a witness. Students are sometimes taping lectures in order to file complaints and students might claim that a professor is not teaching according to "the value platform of the university".

Biological differences

For Enkvist, the concern has been fuelled by a much-publicised report by Academic Rights Watch, a foundation for monitoring academic freedom in Sweden, of a student at the medical faculty at Lund University criticising a professor of neurophysiology, Germund Hesslow, for allegedly saying in a lecture that there might be biological differences between men and women.

Academic Rights Watch has released email correspondence between the course leaders at the medical faculty and student ‘NN’ and Hesslow.

The student wrote to the course leader to report on a lecture by Hesslow on heredity and environment, which focused on “biological differences between men and women”.

The student said: “I have understood that former students have repeatedly complained about this lecture. Partly because the lecture is promoting Hesslow’s own personal antifeminist views and because neither biological sex differences or gender theory are part of his academic expertise.”

The student asked: “Why can we not have a lecturer with correct competence in this field? One who could teach about biological difference that might have a clinical significance? One who instead of claiming that ‘women are sexually cautious’ due to biology could instead illustrate how women over the centuries have been sexually molested, forcibly sterilised, lobotomised and forced to have treatment in the name of medical science? How does this kind of lecture align with the gender perspective that is required?”

On 3 September Hesslow was called to a meeting of the medical degree programme board at Lund University. The chair of the board, Christer Larsson, requested him to modify two of the statements from the lectures: that homosexual women had a "male sexual inclination" and, with regard to transsexualisation, whether "this is a sexual orientation is a question of definition".

Hesslow is reluctant to apologise for his teaching and filed a ‘defence’ statement where he answered all the arguments from the students point by point, which was also published by Academic Rights Watch.

"It is a misunderstanding that this is an exposition of a political agenda,” Hesslow wrote. "It is important to understand that there is ideology, politics and prejudices that underlie the conventional wisdom, not science. My agenda, if it can be characterised as such, is to defend the scientific approach that I think has to dominate all work at a university.”

A spokesperson for the Swedish Association of University Teachers and Researchers (SULF) said it would not be drawn on whether the critique of Hesslow was justified but said it is “natural that students who are trained in critical thinking also might problematise lectures”.

Mats Ericson, a SULF representative at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, told University World News that while he would not comment on the case at Lund University, there is a need for academic education to ensure that individual teachers can “freely convey their own and others’ positions on issues related to their teaching and research”, although teachers must also adhere to the syllabus.

“Academic education should not be ‘politicised’ but should be based on science and proven experience,” he said.

Legal challenge

Meanwhile, in Norway, at the University of Bergen, former student Kristian Eik is raising funds for a legal challenge to establish whether the university is breaking the higher education law in running its course on ‘Gender, sexuality and diversity’, which Eik argues is substandard.

"The course is building on hypotheses that cannot be rejected, which are presented as an absolute truth," he said to the university newspaper På Høyden.

But the University of Bergen has rejected his claim. Jørgen Sejersted, dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Bergen, told University World News that Eik’s argument is mostly concerned with science as a method of hypothesis and verification/falsification through observable facts (or wissenschaft/ vitenskap), a positivist definition that has been used to critique social sciences and humanities research for many years but is arguably too narrow for subjects of research that rely on interpretation and some element of subjectivity.

Sejersted added that from his conversations with Eik on the matter he is “not convinced” that Eik is committed to a theoretical and principled discussion about the essence of wissenschaft, science and research and suspects that “his alleged critique of an alleged ideological nature of gender studies is itself indeed ideological in nature”.

So far Eik has raised NOK80,000 (US$9,800) from 80 people and says he intends to report the university to the police.

In Denmark a row has broken out about overbearing political correctness after guidelines were issued to new students of the faculty of law at the University of Copenhagen which they say infringe on their academic rights because they prohibit them from wearing certain "stereotyping clothing", for instance dressing up as "Native Americans", “Mexicans" or "priests" with costumes that might stereotype people by ethnicity, sexual orientation or religion.

Law students’ tutor Jakob Krabbe Sørensen told University Post that he would not feel offended if he was an exchange student at an American college and they held a party where they were dressed up as Vikings.