Sussex’s racist professor: a debate on academic freedom, May 2002

The case of Geoffrey Sampson, the computing professor who has professed racist views, continues to make waves at Sussex University. A large open meeting on 23 May 2002 heard expressions of criticism, disdain and denunciation from many faculty and students. Gurminder Bhambra delivered the speech below, which drew a response from Martin Shaw in the meeting. This is followed by the email debate which ensued between them.

from (unfortunately this page appears to be corrupted).

There’s nothing wrong with racism’ condemned by University and faculty

Gurminder Bhambra: ‘This last week I have had to think in terms of the colour of my skin and I can tell you that it’s not pleasant to do so. Academic freedom is about the healthy exchange of ideas but it can not be separated from the practices that are legitimated and justified through their promulgation. Therefore any move to protect academic freedom simultaneously protects the practices that are associated with those ideas. As members of a community we have a responsibility for how that community is constructed and develops – we need to move away from idea that if something is academic it is irrelevant – academic debate has consequences and academic freedom entails responsibilities.’ See full speech

Martin Shaw: ‘The problem here is that we can’t always make a clear distinction between ‘matters related to our research’ and others. The basic principle is that knowledge is indivisible. A ‘university’ assumes the universality of knowledge. Rather than a sharp division there is a gradation from subjects we have directly researched, through subjects on which we keep up with the research literature, through cognate subjects with which we have a nodding acquaintance, to subjects which we have no real claim to have studied, but may follow more or less as intelligent laypeople. However an academic has a duty to apply a scholarly attitude to all of these, and should keep this in mind in expressing views involving any or all of them. The problem with Sampson is not that he expresses views on subjects remote from his direct research interests but that he has embraced some of the more dubious scholarship on race and has used it sloppily on his website. I likewise am not a scholar of racial issues in a direct way although I have studied some of the abuses of race (in genocide, for example) more systematically. But I have a passing acquaintanceship with academic debates on race and intelligence and have come to opposite conclusions from Sampson. As a scholar as well as a citizen I feel able to express my views on race with some authority, and want to claim the protection of academic freedom in so doing. I would want to be able to do so even if other people thought I was wrong, as we think that Sampson is wrong. I would want my critics to point out why I was sloppy or wrong, as John Maynard Smith, John Drury and others did [of Sampson] at the meeting, rather than to demand that I be sacked for propagating erroneous views.

1 thought on “Sussex’s racist professor: a debate on academic freedom, May 2002”

  1. It seems John Drury is racist too – he used a stage name “Johnny Yen” in a rock band the Violet White (Google this) which, taken from an Iggy Pop song, is a racist stereotype based on the Opium War! Drury put this on his Uni/job CV, and it’s the meaning re an arm tattoo of his an “anarchy-heart” symbol (Johnny Yen living on a Chinese Rock – Chinese Rocks being a Heartbreakers’ song re Heroin, another racist Opium War stereotype.

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