In May this year I received a message from a student, one I had never met. With the student’s permission, I share the message now because it offers some salutary perspective on an issue that has recently been raised in a hostile article in The Tab (a Murdoch-funded media entity) about expectations and concerns of Syrian students entering Western universities. Aside from smearing my own reputation, the article takes a damagingly prejudicial approach to a sensitive issue, as this message helps us see.
Dear Professor Hayward, I thought it might be important to let you know that an individual claiming to be a journalist for HuffPost UK contacted me yesterday asking If I would comment on your involvement in the Syria, Propaganda and Media Group as I am a [degree programme redacted] student in the School of Social and Political Science. It would appear that the person has likely messaged more students within the school and I felt it was best to let you know. I have not replied and do not intend to.
However, I would be very interested in meeting to discuss the issue of Syria, the uprisings and the truth. As a Syrian student who comes from a pro-government family, I have often felt conflicted between my personally held views and the overwhelming outlook of those around me in Scotland and at the university. I have found it very difficult to know how to research the issues at stake, as any information available tends to be extremely biased in one direction or another. Having now read your wordpress and other materials, I feel it could be extremely refreshing to speak to you and perhaps get a proper perspective on an issue that is extremely personal and important to me.
As I’m sure you understand, being a Syrian student studying at a Western institution has made it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the conflict of viewpoints I face as a Syrian but also a Western-educated student when thinking about and trying to research Syria.
I met the student and we had a long chat – about many things, but they included the difficulties faced by Syrians who are obliged to take a view of the situation in their home country that is imposed on them by people in the West. The fact is, students from Syria, as from anywhere else, have a range of backgrounds, experiences and beliefs. But they also come from a situation of terrible and complex conflict – which can intensify and complicate differences. One thing they have in common, though, is that they have sought to get away from conflict.
Anybody who claims to care, and especially those of us with a duty of care, should be aware of the possibility that people we meet may have views they are reluctant to share – for any number of reasons – and we should be very careful not to presume to know what those views are.
The student I met spoke of being overwhelmed by the expectation of conforming to a view that was so at odds with the student’s own beliefs and experience. The fact that even academics can be contributing to that demoralising experience should be a concern to all of us in education. We might all look to how we can raise our game.
For The Tab – following its big sister The Times – to be singling out for attack those of us making this very point simply goes to show that that the values and ethos of a media entity with multi-million dollar funding from the Murdoch empire are fundamentally at odds with the very vocation of academics, and not just a small group of us.
I am personally most grateful to the student who contacted me, not only for helping avert a planned media attack, but for making tangible the value of respectful mutual engagement that a university aims to support and encourage.