Cambridge, Protest, and Newts

21/03/2012 22:02 | Updated 17 May 2012

On 22 November 2011, Owen Holland, a PhD student at Cambridge University read a poetic protest at an appearance by David Willets, the UK's Minister for Universities and Science, and prevented Willets from speaking (or so thoroughly annoyed him that he stormed out, depending on who you ask). And now there's a hullabaloo, because the university has rusticated Holland for seven terms - two and a half years. 'Rusticate' - from the English word rustic and therefore ultimately from the Latin rustici meaning heathens - is Cambridge's charming alternative to 'suspend', implying that anywhere which is not Cambridge is a sort of rural backwater where newts burp at one another and fungi sprout from whatever outdated texts may have survived the annual bonfire of knowledge.

I find this whole thing particularly annoying because I was at Cambridge - at Clare College, to be precise - and I routinely receive worthy, hopeful letters asking me to give money so that the old place can maintain its high standards in the face of financial woe. I never do, because of moments like this.

For perspective: the poet John Milton was rusticated for quarrelling with his tutor; cartoonist Mark Boxer, then editor of Granta, was rusticated for blasphemy but his sentence was commuted to a week's suspension; journalist Jon Snow was rusticated for being part of a political protest and never returned. And I recall during my time at Cambridge an incident of fairly serious physical violence which was dealt with quietly 'in college' and resulted in rustication - though not for anything like two and a half years. So we are to understand that Holland's sin is to be considered worse than blasphemy (some fifty six times worse at a minimum) and worse than assault and battery, but not as bad as whatever Jon Snow did. (I don't know, but now I'm dying to find out.)

Rustication is unevenly applied, which would make it suspect in any proper court, and this is a particularly wretched example of grumpy affront rather than justice. But the real shame here - and it is a shame, in the sense of something which should make the gut of anyone involved knot itself in a ball - is the decision to stamp on protest. The UK has no specific right to free speech in such a context, which makes it all the more important that universities should champion it. The country is in the midst of a prolonged crisis, and many of our most treasured riches - the NHS, the police service, and, yes, our education system - are under threat. It is entirely appropriate that ministers be challenged on their plans, that the ethos of this government be assailed, tested, and examined in public and by the public.

What Cambridge has done here is almost unforgivable: the university has implied that such challenge is frivolous, that it does not merit respect or protection, that it's the sort of thing only silly children do and for which they are sternly punished. It's actually not important now if Holland successfully appeals or is in some way granted clemency. It's done. The message is that protest is considered bad behaviour.

Here's what I think Cambridge should have said:

"Cambridge University regrets that David Willets felt unable to continue his appearance, and reminds all members of the community that free discussion is the beating heart of academic inquiry and the search for knowledge. At the same time, however, the university accepts that Mr Holland acted in good conscience and out of a desire to contest Mr Willets' perceptions and those of the government he represents. The stating of a passionately held viewpoint is not grounds for punishment by an educational institution, and ministers in government must expect and accept that their actions and policies will arouse opposition. The university therefore considers this matter as being between government and citizen, and celebrates the persistence of the vigorous and informed public sphere which is key to a thriving representative democracy."

If they'd managed something like that, I'd be proud to be an alumnus. Right now I just wish I'd gone to Warwick - even if the library was full of newts.