The outgoing Vice Chancellor of Oxford University has said it is “unfortunate” that some students “claim a right not to be offended”.
In an interview with student newspaper Cherwell, Dame Louise Richardson, who has served as Vice Chancellor since 2016, said that “there is a view amongst some students – and it’s not all students – there is a right not to be offended”.
“I think that’s unfortunate. I’d like to persuade them that that’s not a healthy approach to take,” she added.
She said that Oxford was “pretty robust” on freedom of speech.
“We both know that the press – or some parts of the press – likes to use the issue of freedom of speech as a stick with which to beat certain universities,” she said.
“But I think we’re pretty robust on the issue, even if not every student or every staff member would agree with me precisely on where to draw the lines. My own view is that all legal speech should be welcomed at universities.”
Dame Louise has previously told students that they must be prepared to “hear the other side” of arguments and that “they should, through reasoned debate, seek to change the other’s mind and above all, be open to having their own mind changed too”.
In the interview, she also reflected on the idea of removing statues because of their history, giving the example of her own view of Oliver Cromwell during her upbringing in Ireland.
“When I was growing up Oliver Cromwell was the devil incarnate. He was to me what Voldemort was to my kids,” she said.
“Then growing up, going to London, and seeing this big statue outside the House of Commons and going to see who it was. And I thought: ‘Oh my gosh, that’s Cromwell. Well, isn’t that fascinating? Here we are, a few hundred miles away, and this man who I was brought up to see as an evil butcher has been lionised’.”
She said that it “never occurred to me that his statue should be ripped down because he did terrible things in Ireland” and that historical figures could not be judged by the moral values of the present day.
Elsewhere in the interview, Dame Louise also reflected on criticisms that privately educated pupils now find it harder to get into Oxbridge, describing this idea as a “distraction”.
She said that seven years ago Oxford was being criticised in the press “constantly for being inaccessible to poor kids”.
“Now, we’re getting criticism for the fact that it’s harder – it is alleged to be harder – for privately educated kids to get in. And so yes, I think those criticisms are a distraction,” she said, adding that describing prospective candidates in these terms made it “much harder for us to recruit the very best kids from every part of the country, irrespective of their background”.