In a move to combat the rising tide of “cancel culture” within academia, over 100 academics from London’s top-tier universities have banded together to form the London Universities’ Council for Academic Freedom (LUCAF). This initiative, the first of its kind in the UK, encompasses a wide range of scholars from diverse fields and political beliefs across all London campuses, including University College London (UCL), King’s College London, Imperial College London, and the London School of Economics (LSE).
At the heart of this council’s formation is the drive to uphold the principles of free inquiry, intellectual diversity, and civil discourse, which have come under siege amid various free speech controversies and escalating campus debates, notably over the Hamas-Israel conflict. The council finds its inspiration from the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard launched earlier, aiming to forestall such free speech scandals by showcasing the robust support for academic freedom to university authorities and devising strategies to challenge “institutional policies and practices” that undermine free speech.
The co-founders of this council, John Armstrong, a lecturer in financial mathematics at King’s College London, and Professor Alice Sullivan, a sociology expert at UCL, expressed their concerns over the erosion of academic freedom. Armstrong stressed the importance of safeguarding the ability of academics to explore controversial ideas without fear, while Sullivan highlighted that without academics defending this freedom, there’s little hope for others to do so.
Emphasising a non-partisan approach, the council underlines that “academic freedom safeguards the pursuit of knowledge and truth”, which is fundamental to the mission of higher education and the democratic process. Their launch statement encourages open and honest discussions on controversial topics and stands against harassment and discrimination against university staff and students based on their beliefs and the lawful expression of their views.
The council’s formation comes in the wake of several controversial incidents within London’s universities that have sparked heated debates on free speech and academic freedom. From issues surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict to discussions on “decolonising” mathematics and diversity training, the tensions within the academic community have been palpable.
The London Universities’ Council for Academic Freedom is now a platform for academics in London to publicly endorse the principle of academic freedom. By facilitating collaboration, developing resources, and holding events, they hope to influence institutional policies and promote academic freedom within and beyond their institutions.