New director of academic freedom for England’s office for students commits a bit of plagiarism

June 9, 2023 • 10:15 am

UPDATE:  Dr. Ahmed was appalled to realize that he’d unconsciously used the words of the Kalven Report, and tried to get the Times to note that in its printed piece. But the Times says it usually doesn’t add stuff like that, so Ahmed has asked me to add the following note to this site; I’m glad to comply.


Prof. Coyne is quite right that the first two sentences of this article include words used in the Kalven Report of the University of Chicago. This was completely unconscious on my part but I am happy to acknowledge it. I’d like to thank him very much for pointing this out.

I also wish to take this opportunity to mention that the third sentence, ‘It is not a seminary’, of course expresses a common idea that many others have expressed in these or similar terms, notably John Henry Newman.



Reader Jez sent me some news from England, which seems pretty good, but I found a bug in the ointment. First, Jez’s news, highlighted in a piece he wrote for The Times of London (first link):

Just in case you’re interested, Arif Ahmed was recently appointed the director for freedom of speech and academic freedom for the Office for Students in England. He is a professor of philosophy at the University of Cambridge and seems to be a good choice.

Indeed, Ahmed is not only an MBE, but, more important, is described this way in Wikipedia:

At Cambridge he has been an advocate for tolerance of diverse political views, in reaction to the university administration’s cancellation of an invitation to the politically conservative academic Jordan Peterson.

But reading the archived Times article in the first link, something struck me as sounding familiar. Ahmed’s piece starts this way:

A university is not a club. It is not a political lobby. It is not a seminary. It is not a “brand”. It exists to seek and speak truth, whatever it costs and whoever it upsets. Therefore, without freedom to explore controversial or “offensive” ideas, a university is nothing.

Well, that made me go back to the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report of 1967—the University’s declaration that it will officially adhere to political, moral, and ideological neutrality save in circumstances directly affecting the University’s real mission: to disseminate and produce knowledge.

And in that Kalven report you’ll find these stirring words:

A university, if it is to be true to its faith in intellectual inquiry, must embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community. It is a community but only for the limited, albeit great, purposes of teaching and research. It is not a club, it is not a trade association, it is not a lobby.

Now these words aren’t identical to Ahmed’s, but I find it hard to believe that he didn’t lift the phrases “it is not a club” and “it is not a lobby”—succinct and eloquent phrases—from our Kalven report. And if that’s the case, then he should have given credit to Kalven and his colleagues.

Lifting phrases like this, which to me is plagiarism, is not a good way to begin one’s tenure as a director of freedom of speech and academic freedom. For what you are not free to do is pass off other people’s prose as yours.

Granted, these are small phrases, and the copying may have been unconscious, but had I written this, I would have referenced the quote or used my own words.

Otherwise, it’s a very good editorial, and a good harbinger of more free speech and academic freedom in British universities.

17 thoughts on “New director of academic freedom for England’s office for students commits a bit of plagiarism

  1. It’s almost certainly lifted from the Kalven Report. The author probably knew that he had heard or read the phrase before, but was lazy in that he didn’t go back to locate the source. It’s plagiarism, but it may be more a matter of laziness (not a good sign either) than it is a matter of purposeful dishonesty.

    That said, I did a Bing search on “A university is not a club. It is not a political lobby” and immediately found the Kalven Report as the second item in the list. Ahmed should have done the same.

  2. I’m paranoid about whether any good turn of phrase I want to write is something I’ve come up with or just something I’ve vaguely remembered reading without realizing it’s a memory and not creativity.

  3. Yes, not the best of starts. But Prof. Ahmed was impressive in inviting Helen Joyce (author of the excellent Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality) to his college at Cambridge – in the face of disgraceful opposition from the leaders of the college, as well as the usual bunch of intolerant students – and making sure that she was able to speak. And he joined fellow philosophy professor Kathleen Stock at his university’s debating society – they won the debate, despite one of the students on their debating team vilifying Prof. Stock in the debating chamber in the opening speech and arguing against the proposition that they had agreed to defend.

  4. Good catch. Now, in the spirit of debate, Professor Ahmed must acknowledge that and give you the point.

    1. Yes, I got a nice email from Ahmed who was horrified, saying that he must have picked up the phrase unconsciously and regurgitated it. He’s asking the time to credit the phrases properly. That’s fine with me, and of course I believe him. When the correction is made, I’ll add a note to the post above.

      1. I’m a Brit and have two daughters who start university this year and next, and I find this news heartwarming and reassuring. I’ve read about Prof Ahmed several times and have been really impressed, he seems a perfect choice for this role. From Jerry’s correspondence with him, he appears also to be imbued with honesty and integrity, which is equally great. Best of luck Prof Ahmed, we need you!

      1. Very interesting article about C E M J oad. The way it changed over time and users was fascinating.

  5. Rephrasing a point of view is not really plagiarism, I’m sure I have reiterated trains of thought that I internalised and then rendered again. In fact, as a concrete example, I started to write an article, and I later discovered (luckily before submitting), that it was basically what Richard Wrangham wrote a few years earlier. I was horrified to realise I had reproduced some of his sentences close to literally.
    The human brain works in “mysterious ways”, thinking that an idea you picked up somewhere is your own.
    At least I know I’m prone to that. I’m definitely less of a genius than I’d like to be.

    1. In the Broadway staging of the court-martial from Herman Wouk’s novel, The Caine Mutiny, lawyer Greenwald is trying to figure out his client, Maryk, the.Caine’s executive officer accused of the mutiny. Maryk, we learn, is the son of a commercial fisherman, not well-read and struggled academically in college before joining the Naval Reserve for the war. He tells Greenwald, “Sometimes I think the Navy is an organization created by geniuses for execution by idiots.”

      Greenwald stares at him, retorts, “Where’d you hear that?”

      Feelings hurt (actually there as a stage direction), Maryk pleads, “Couldn’t I have just thought it up?”

      “You could’ve just thought up the Gettysburg Address, too. C’mon, give.”
      Any more would be a spoiler.

      Theatre fans will be interested to know that Henry Fonda played Greenwald in the original and New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath played Maryk in a revival.

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