CBE for professor Nigel Biggar who championed free speech after campaigners tried to stop research


Oxford professor Nigel Biggar who championed free speech after campaigners tried to stop his research into the history of the British Empire has received a CBE in the Queen’s birthday honours.

Professor Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ Church College, believes he has been given the award due to his engagement with the ‘issue of free speech and academic freedom in universities’.

The eminent professor, who leads a course on ‘Ethics and the Empire’ which explores both the positive and negative effects of the empire, said he has been the target of three campaigns asking the university to stop his research.

In 2017, the canon of Christ Church Cathedral received backlash from Oxford students after writing an opinion piece in a newspaper titled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’.

More recently, he branded a proposed boycott of Oriel students over the decision to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue as ‘authoritarian’, saying it ‘displays the ugly intolerance of its supporters’.

It comes amid the revelation that Oxford dons who have joined the boycott are being funded by imperialists. Several professors benefiting from financial legacies built on forced labour were accused of ‘biting the hand that feeds them’. 

Professor Nigel Biggar (pictured above), regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ Church College, believes he has been given the award due to his engagement with the 'issue of free speech and academic freedom in universities'

Professor Nigel Biggar (pictured above), regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Christ Church College, believes he has been given the award due to his engagement with the ‘issue of free speech and academic freedom in universities’

Professor Biggar, who is the director of Oxford’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, told The Times: ‘I would say that it’s been awarded because of my engagement with the issue of free speech and academic freedom in universities.

‘That involves being able to speak freely and do research on things colonial and the British Empire in a manner that may conclude that the British Empire and colonialism were not all bad.’

He added: ‘There are some people who think that it’s not an issue and that it’s a right-wing fantasy. It is not.’

In a 2017 article for the newspaper, Professor Biggar acknowledged that the British Empire was ‘morally mixed’ but said it had also provided law and order in other countries.

He wrote: ‘If on the other hand we recognise that the history of the British Empire was morally mixed, just like that of any nation state, then pride can temper shame.

‘Pride at the Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, for example, will not be entirely obscured by shame at the slaughter of innocents at Amritsar in 1919.

‘And while we might well be moved to think with care about how to intervene abroad successfully, we won’t simply abandon the world to its own devices.’

Following his comments, more than 50 professors, lecturers and researchers signed an open letter rejecting the academic’s views.  

Professor Biggar has recently branded a proposed boycott of Oriel students over the decision to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue as 'authoritarian' (file photo)

Professor Biggar has recently branded a proposed boycott of Oriel students over the decision to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue as 'authoritarian' (file photo)

Professor Biggar has recently branded a proposed boycott of Oriel students over the decision to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue as ‘authoritarian’ (file photo)

Student campaigners also labelled the professor as ‘bigoted’, calling the article ‘racist’ and claiming it ‘whitewashed’ the British Empire. 

But the University stood by the professor, saying he was ‘entirely suitable’ and an ‘internationally-recognised authority on the ethics of empire’, adding that it supported ‘academic freedom of speech’. 

And the professor recently commented on four dons receiving funding from the Leverhulme Trust, created with funding from Lord Leverhulme, a soap magnate who established plantations in the 1910s in the Belgian Congo. 

He said: ‘These boycotters occupy positions or hold grants made in the name of Rhodes or other imperialists which they are happy to accept whilst berating the people who actually provided the funds.

‘There is a certain moral inconsistency in doing that: you are biting the hand that feeds you, in effect.’

It comes amid the revelation that Oxford dons who have joined the boycott at Oriel College are themselves being funded by imperialists (pictured: the Cecil Rhodes statue)

It comes amid the revelation that Oxford dons who have joined the boycott at Oriel College are themselves being funded by imperialists (pictured: the Cecil Rhodes statue)

It comes amid the revelation that Oxford dons who have joined the boycott at Oriel College are themselves being funded by imperialists (pictured: the Cecil Rhodes statue)

A historian told The Telegraph that Leverhulme’s ‘private kingdom’ in the African nation, which was then under Belgium’s colonial rule, was ‘reliant on the horrific Belgian system of forced labour, a programme that reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi Holocaust’.

Others disagree and claim Leverhulme was more progressive than other leading industrialists of his time.

Among the boycotting professors are Dr Dan Hodgkinson and Dr Zoe Cormack, who are beneficiaries of the Leverhulme Early Career Fellows.

The three-year post is fully funded for the first year by the Leverhulme Trust, which part funds the second and third years of the programme.

Another don funded by the legacy of the former colonialist is Dr Julia Viebach, a lecturer in African studies who recently completed a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship at the Law Faculty.

Dr Agnieszka Kościańska is a visiting professor funded by the programme and is eligible to £150,000 of funding from the trust, while Dr Kathrin Bachleitner’s research is fully funded by the IKEA foundation.



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