SCOTLAND’S most prominent historian Professor Tom Devine has accused two of the country’s leading universities of a “conspiracy of silence” amid a fellow senior academic’s attack on him and a colleague.
The scholar has called for a public apology and is considering legal action against Sir Geoff Palmer who is conducting an inquiry into the University of Edinburgh’s links to slavery.
Palmer described Professor Jonathan Hearn of the University of Edinburgh as a member of “an academic racist gang” on Twitter over differing views on the legacy of 18th-century lawyer and politician Henry Dundas. When Devine, an emeritus professor of history at the same university, said Palmer’s “appalling slurs” should result in his dismissal as chairman of a group assessing the university’s historical links with slavery, he too was branded a racist.
The principal of the University of Edinburgh Peter Mathieson reprimanded Palmer, who is Chancellor and emeritus professor at Heriot-Watt University. Mathieson said in an email to staff on Friday that the review was “critically important work which has our full backing”, adding that it was crucial to ensure “no-one is deterred from participating by any sense that their contributions might be different or contradictory to others”.
He said: “All debate, discussion and disagreement must be conducted in a respectful manner at all times, abiding by the law and under the auspices of the university’s dignity and respect policy. I do not feel that has been the case with recent events and I have therefore spoken to the chair of the steering group of the university’s review, Sir Geoff Palmer, to clarify expectations under the university’s dignity and respect policy.”
Devine told the Sunday National he was speaking to lawyers and said a scholar’s reputation could be “shredded” by such a slur. He said the attack was ironic as he had been responsible for pioneering work examining Scotland’s historic links with slavery when the country was possibly “in denial” about the connections. Speaking to the National last night – as the row showed no sign of calming – Devine hit out at Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities and called for a debate in Holyrood on academic freedom.
“Shamefully, the author of the revolting slurs against Professor Jonathan Hearn and myself still retains the chairs of two important committees at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh City Council respectively,” he said. “The university has merely released vapid and platitudinous responses to questions from the press about this affair with no specific mention of the individual concerned.”
He added: “There has not been a cheap from Heriot-Watt University where he also occupies high office. Amid this conspiracy of silence, it is important that the crucial issues of academic freedom and the responsibilities of public institutions arising from this disgraceful episode should now be publicly debated. The best forum for that is the Parliament of Scotland.”
In order for a subject to be debated an MSP would need to lodge a motion in Parliament.
A spokesperson for Heriot-Watt University said: “Professor Sir Geoff Palmer shared his personal views in an independent capacity and it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time. We have no plans to review his position.”
A University of Edinburgh statement said: “Our commitment to reviewing the university’s past and present links on race remains steadfast. We want this process to be conducted in a culture of mutual respect with all views considered throughout.
“It is a difficult and emotive topic, and we understand that our discussions and conclusions will be scrutinised, but we will remain focused on taking this important work forward.”