The Elusive Professor Hunt

Be taught by this to speak with moderation

Of places where, with decent application

One gets a good, sound, middle-class education.

– Hilaire Belloc, ‘A Moral Alphabet’

There’s been some great comment about the Tim Hunt scandal this week. I’d particularly recommend Professor David Colquhoun’s article, plus this interesting series of tweets from Michael Hendricks – it’s amazing what can be done with longform Twitter these days. What do I think about Tim Hunt? My first thoughts are that this is a very British affair. And I really don’t like the very British culture of banning stuff and demanding that people lose their jobs because they have said something stupid. It’s very high school particularly in the dance of ostracisation and the smug contempt directed at people who don’t know the rules. I would be appalled if this was a young man, maybe with a family, who lost his livelihood and career because he expressed a stupid opinion.

But Tim Hunt is not a young man is he? He is 72 years old, a distinguished professor and a Nobel laureate. A lot of the backlash, the people who have said that Professor Hunt is the victim of a ‘witchhunt’ (in Britain any rigorous and sustained criticism constitutes a ‘witchhunt’) seems to come from this argument to authority: look at this man! He has been a scientist since before you were born! Where’s the deference! Where’s your respect?

But in Britain deference covers a multitude of sins. In Simon Danczuk’s excellent Smile for the Camera, his book about the Cyril Smith paedophile revelations, he writes that ‘blind deference no longer determines a significant part of people’s worldview, earned respect has become the challenge facing everyone in public life… And that’s what gives me ground for optimism.’ This is not a comparison, I don’t think Hunt and Smith are in any way comparable: the point is a reflection on how society has changed, and changed for the better. For decades talented young workers, particularly young women, have had to negotiate and defer to stupid, ill mannered old men who for some reason or another are in a position of authority. They don’t so much now and Hunt did not realise this – hence his shocked response to levels of mockery and derision that are standard in any regulars’ pub or lively office.

Should Hunt have lost his job on this? Instinctively, I feel this sets a bad precedent, but then again, do you want to work for someone who advocates gender segregated workplaces? We wouldn’t tolerate this from a conservative Islamic imam – at least I hope we would not. And as Professor Colquhoun said: ‘All you have to do to see the problems is to imagine yourself as a young women, applying for a grant or fellowship, in competition with men, knowing that Hunt was one of her judges.’ Also, if Hunt had generalised about people of colour, older people or people of faith in the crass way that he did, he would have been out and there would have been no lineup of important people to defend him. Again, as a society we don’t hold the younger generation, particularly young women, in that level of esteem.

The Hunt affair has been framed as a case of academia gone PC wild. But contra the backlash, universities are not that censorious. I know that the NUS has said and done stupid things, individual student unions do stupid things. But student unions are democratic organisations. If student representatives pass idiot resolutions, students can and should vote them out and elect better representatives, even stand for election themselves – although I appreciate that student politics in general is an invitation to a misspent youth. If you think universities chill free expression, try working for an employer. If you are an employee and you shoot your mouth off at a widely reported public event… chances are you will quickly become an ex employee.

Is that fair? Maybe not, but businesses care very much about reputation and universities are a business. The bulk of Colquhoun’s post, and also this fantastic piece by Marina Warner, explores how HE has become strangled by the mindless HR, bureaucracy and target culture that is killing the British work ethic. There’s a debate to be had here, and it goes beyond the student union.

(Image: Connie St Louis)

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One Response to “The Elusive Professor Hunt”

  1. rdubar Says:

    Hunt does not “advocate gender segregated workplaces”. It was a joke. It may have been a poorly judged and inappropriate one, but it was a joke. Forgive me if I missed it, but your article does not appear to recognise that.

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