Dr Tony Sewell: MPs back race report chair in honorary degree decision

By Sandish Shoker & PA news agency
BBC News Online

Tony Sewell
Image caption,
MPs have signed a letter asking for a U-turn from the university

MPs have signed a letter in support of a race report chairman who had an honorary degree offer withdrawn by a university over "controversy".

Dr Tony Sewell had been due to collect the award from the University of Nottingham this year but they backed out after his government-commissioned report was published last year.

He accused the establishment of not wanting to "rock the boat".

Now MPs have written to the university demanding a U-turn.

At the meeting of the Commons Education Select Committee on Tuesday, Conservative MP Tom Hunt said he had been "really shocked" by the university's decision.

"It makes nonsense of the claim that the Free Speech Bill is not needed," he added.

He said a letter signed by about 60 fellow Tory MPs would be sent to the University's Vice-Chancellor and they "would not let it lie".

Image source, The University of Nottingham
Image caption,
The University of Nottingham said it had strict criteria for its honorary degrees

The review by Dr Sewell, chairman of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, was commissioned following the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

It found that while there were racial disparities in the UK, there was no evidence of "institutional racism".

However some criticised his report, with one source calling it "tone deaf" and another saying it was a "let down" and a denial of the existence of institutional racism.

Last week Dr Sewell revealed an honorary degree that he had been selected for by his former university had since been withdrawn as a result of conversations around the report.

He argued that universities should be a place for students to debate and said the decision had been made "because they didn't want to rock the boat and it is about money".

'Cancel culture'

During Tuesday's meeting, Quintin McKellar, vice-president of Universities UK, said that most universities would "go to the end of the earth to maintain freedom of speech" but said "we all are concerned about the cancel culture".

He added that the issue was "difficult" and gave an example of the "issues around pro-Russian propaganda being put forward by colleagues at some universities".

"Should we uphold the freedom of speech in that circumstance? These are not simple issues," he said.

The University of Nottingham said the decision to withdraw the honorary degree offer was "not a judgement" on Dr Sewell or his work.

"It is simply about ensuring that we apply the same criteria to all those we consider for the award of an honorary degree," a spokesperson said.

"The university has strict criteria governing the award of honorary degrees, because these are conferred at our public graduation ceremonies. The criteria were revised a number of years ago to preclude us from awarding them to figures who become the subject of political controversy, so that a day of celebration for our graduates does not attract such controversy.

"Since making the decision to confer an honorary degree in late 2019, the university's Honorary Degrees Committee noted that Dr Sewell became the subject of political controversy during 2021, and as such determined it would no longer be appropriate to award the degree."

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