Velvet Totalitarianism in British Academia: The Case of Chris Brand and Edinburgh University

April 2000

After publishing a book on intelligence that argued there are race-based differences in intelligence, Chris Brand, a tenured psychology lecturer at the University of Edinburgh, was "investigated," and suspended for nine months. He was subsequently fired for "disgraceful behaviour" and "gross misconduct" after he supported an American academic accused of paedophilia in an Internet newsletter. [See SAFS Newsletters 14 (Sept. 1996), 16 (March 1997), 17 (August 1997), 18 (Feb. 1998).

The final act of this drama came at the end of October last year, when the University settled out of court just before an employment tribunal was to hear the case. The University agreed to pay Mr. Brand the maximum that he could have been awarded by the tribunal.

"What happened to me is a total suppression of academic opinion and evidence, which is comparable only to the kind of thing that used to go on in the Soviet Union," Brand said in an interview with John O'Leary, Education Editor of The Times (London) (October 29, 1999).

I tend to agree, while recognizing that the punishments metered out by the Soviet totalitarian regime were far more severe than the one from this distinguished British university.

The Edinburgh University approach fits what I have called ‘velvet totalitarianism.’ One of the indicators of subtle but insidious repression is the freezing fear exhibited by faculty and their organizations when one of their colleagues is treated unfairly. In the Brand case, no British academic organization came to his aid or spoke out on the issues involved. This includes the British Council for Academic Freedom, whose president (at the time) was Lord Russell, grandson of the great philosopher and the author of a fine book on academic freedom.

As far as I know, SAFS and our sister organization, the National Association of Scholars in the USA, were the only groups to speak out on the issues of academic freedom in the treatment of Chris Brand. (See SAFS Newsletter 18, Feb. 1998, p. 2, for our joint press release).

The decision of Edinburgh University to fire Brand was given legal rationale by a Commissioner’s Ordinance passed by parliament. The ordinance allows that "disgraceful behaviour" is sufficient cause for dismissal from a workplace. The law was passed in 1988 during the Thatcher government, but it is my understanding (from a conversation with Dr.Malcolm Lowe, the Secretary of Edinburgh University, August 15, 1999) that this is the first time that a university has used the ordinance to justify a dismissal.

Dr. Lowe, like many other British university administrators, is uneasy about the ordinance’s application to universities, as against other workplaces. Behaviour that some would consider "disgraceful" has often been tolerated as allowable and even as facilitating the mission of institutions of higher education. The fact that British universities so meekly accepted the ordinance, that one university has applied it and others did not challenge this, seems to me to suggest that an inhibiting fear pervades academia there.