Written by Student Rights on 20 September 2010 at 1pm

Taking responsibility for universities and their students

by Fergus Brady University-graduates-006

Every year, mid-September sees students heading or returning to universities across the country, looking forward to the challenges and opportunities of the academic year ahead. University societies will be thinking about their programmes for the year ahead; the events they want to promote and the speakers they want to host. Unfortunately, the past decade has seen many universities playing host to deeply divisive and rancorous extremist speakers, often at the request of the university’s Islamic society.

This trend was thrust into the national spotlight following the failure of Umar Farouk  Abdulmutallab to detonate an explosive device on board a Northwest Airlines Flight over Detroit. Abdulmutallab had served as President of University College London’s Islamic Society, during which time the society had hosted numerous extremist speakers. _47003465_abdulmutallabmugshot226282Abdulmutallab wasn’t the first senior member of a British ISOC to engage in terrorist activity however.

In 2007, Kafeel Ahmed, who had been involved with the executive of Queen’s University Belfast ISOC, died, having driven a jeep packed with explosive material into the front entrance of Glasgow airport. In the same year, Yassin Nassari, the president of the University of Westminster Harrow Campus ISOC was arrested at Luton airport, when security staff found blueprints for military rockets in his luggage. Waheed Zaman, who had been president of the London Metropolitan University ISOC, was imprisoned in 2008 for his part in the plot to explode liquid bombs on transatlantic flights.

All of this was brought into wider national awareness following Abdulmutallab’s arrest. The failed terrorist’s time at UCL was widely discussed in the British press, as was the suggestion that he may have been radicalised at university. The attention given to this case, and the consequent discussions of universities’ attitude to extremist speakers means that no university can plead ignorance on this issue. In the absence of ignorance, the presence of divisive speakers on campus must be the result of complacency or complicity on the part of the university authorities.

When challenged on UCL’s inglorious record of hosting extremist speakers, Malcolm Grant, the university’s provost, made his attitude towards the issue clear by stating that he had no objections to extremist speakers and that all voices deserved to be heard in the interest of free speech. Organisations such as Student Rights can bring unsavoury events to the attention of unaware university administrators but there are few solutions to craven abdications of responsibility, such as that demonstrated by Professor Grant. Given the new prominence of this issue on university campuses, it would be desirable if the relevant authorities developed responsible plans to keep their campuses free of the kind of rhetoric that, as the terrorism cases mentioned above prove, can have repercussions far beyond the university campus.