By Rod Thornton, Nottingham University
Nottingham University: Debating academic freedom
I welcome the fact that a couple of my colleagues have put forward their views in regard to the situation vis-à-vis the monitoring of module reading lists in Nottingham University’s School of Politics. I feel I should be allowed some sort of reply. I am, after all, at the centre of this whole situation in that I feel that I cannot allow my own reading lists concerned with Terrorism modules to be monitored in the fashion suggested.
Just about everything the two writers say needs to be put into context. First of all, the point is never made as to why this module review process – where academics check other academics’ reading lists without student input – is actually necessary specifically in the School of Politics. Why does it need to be introduced in the School of Politics and not across the whole of Nottingham University? I would say that there is no rationale. Of course, the assumption has been made that the School of Politics was involved in some way in the arrests that we had in May 2008 on campus – when two people were detained on terrorism charges. In fact, the School was in no way involved.
by Pauline Eadie and Mathew Humphrey of Nottingham University
The Times Higher reports on vetting at Nottingham
In the 25 June 2009 edition of the Times Higher Education an article appeared credited to Melanie Newman entitled ‘Reading lists inspected for capacity to incite violence’. The article referred to the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham. The article claimed that the institution had set up a module review committee to advise on academic teaching materials. The article cites an internal document which states that the review is to ‘provide feedback to staff on a range of issues’, including the topics covered, the assessment methods used and “whether any material on reading lists could be illegal or might be deemed to incite people to use violence”’. The convenor of the on-line ‘Teaching about Terrorism’ group, Prof. David Miller of Strathclyde University, is cited as saying that Nottingham’s review policy ‘represented a fundamental attack on academic freedom’ The module review committee is a censorship committee: it can’t operate as anything else […] The University is acting as the police one step removed”
By David Miller
The Teaching About Terrorism Group held a very positive two day seminar in London in early June. A range of issues were discussed including
- discussions with the UCU about how to defend members who were attacked in the press as had happened to members of the group at Aberystwyth who had been targeted by Melanie Phillips, in allegations rejected by the University.
- Discussion about the Nottingham case and its implications for academic freedom.
- discussion about the wide variety of experiences that members had in teaching and research terrorism.
- The implications of government guidance on good campus relations for teaching about terrorism.
The group to take forward a number of initiatives including policy guidance and research activities, some of which relate to the grant we have been given by C-SAP to survey terrorism teaching and experience.
Following on from the previous post on the removal of online comments following a piece in the Times Higher Education on 25 June, the THE also refused to publish a letter on the controversy from myself. I reproduce it below for the record.
The Times Higher reports on vetting at Nottingham
This was the headline of a piece in the Times Higher Education on 25 June, which sparked some controversy. The story is online on the THE site, but the significant number of comments posted in response are now no longer online. There seems to be a variety of reasons for this, but we can note in particular that many of the comments were strongly critical of the report and in particular of the journalist who wrote it. The comments were removed on the 29/30 June. At lunch time on the 30th Sean Matthews from Nottingham University emailed the deleted comments to me as convenor of the Teaching About Terrorism email list stating that the debate ‘is too important to suppress’. He went on to suggest that the comments be posted on the web ‘in order that the materials may continue to
be in the public domain’.
'Al Qaeda Training Manual' available on Amazon
A Nottingham postgraduate student and an administrator were arrested in May 2008 and held for six days by counter-terrorism police after a document known as the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’ was found on the administrator’s computer. The student had sent him the document some months previously as he wanted his advice on whether or not it was a good source to use in his MA dissertation – which was on Al Qaeda. The student, before his arrest, did ask a lecturer at the university if it would be alright for him to use as a source. This lecturer, after checking the document out, agreed.
What exactly is the ‘Al Qaeda Training Manual’? It is a handwritten document (originally in Arabic) that was found in Manchester in 2000 by the police and translated by them into English. Its real title is ‘Declaration of Jihad against the Country’s Tyrants’ (or sometimes ‘Military Studies in the Jihad against the Tyrants’) and appears to have originated in Egypt in the early 1990s. It was designed to be used by Islamists opposing the Egyptian government in particular and secular Arab regimes more generally in the 1980s/1990s. The words ‘Al Qaeda’ actually do not appear in it once. It was only given the title ‘The Al Qaeda Training Manual’ by the US Department of Justice (US DoJ) which was using this document (having obtained it from the British police) as evidence in the trial in New York of the East African embassy bombers in 2000. The name was changed presumably in an attempt to ‘sex up’/‘spin’ the document to make it sound more ‘incriminating’ to a jury.