03/26/2012 03:27 pm ET Updated May 26, 2012

An Ugly Lesson in Repression at Cambridge University

I am a fiction and non-fiction writer, and a Visiting Fellow this year at Cambridge University. This week, I participated in a silent protest attended by more than 100 Cambridge students and several lecturers, in response to the University's recent rustication (temporary expulsion) of Ph.D. student Owen Holland.

Last November, Holland, with a number of other students and some lecturers, committed the grave crime of expressing quite vocal but peaceful dissent during a visit of Conservative Party politician and Minister of State for Universities and Science David Willetts to the University. The punishment that Cambridge has decided to enforce against Holland for his protest, by way of its Court of Discipline and University Advocate (presently Dr. Rosy Thornton of Emmanuel College), is draconian to say the least: suspension from the University for seven terms, or roughly two and a half years -- a period of time that will deeply disable and derail Holland's career as it simultaneously isolates him from his Cambridge colleagues and the University's resources (such as reliable access to libraries, colloquia, symposia, lectures, etc.) that a doctoral student needs for the enhancement and completion of his research.

Many people in the United Kingdom -- myself included, as an observing visitor -- consider Minister Willetts's proposed cuts to higher education (principally what the Cambridge students and lecturers were protesting last November) both reprehensible and deeply blinkered, and ultimately, hugely harmful to intellectual and student life across the U.K., from the more privileged realms of Oxbridge to universities with far scantier resources.

For several years, in line with Conservative Party priorities, Willetts has aggressively pushed for government cuts to higher education and for universities' substantial raising of their tuition fees -- proposals that, if ultimately successful, will result in innumerable students graduating with larger-than-ever loan debts, as the research and even teaching resources of university lecturers, and presumably the resources of other staff, are diminished. (Interestingly, in the face of these indefensible realities, in 2011 academics at both Cambridge and Oxford prepared motions of "no confidence" against Willetts, to be forwarded to the government after voting on the motions was completed. The motion passed overwhelmingly at Oxford, but was narrowly defeated at Cambridge. "No confidence" votes against Willetts also succeeded in 2011 at the University of Bath and the University of Leeds, and in eight departments at King's College in London.)

While Willetts's problematic intentions are one matter of critical importance in the U.K. today, the severe punishment of Holland by Cambridge University -- punishment clearly intended to make an example of him by intimidation meant to target, discourage and stifle dissent -- is another entirely. What, exactly, did Holland -- a soft-spoken, articulate, thoughtful man whom I met last term after he attended a class to which I had been invited to speak as a guest -- do to incur the University's strong-armed wrath? He recited a poem, of sorts, and was joined in recitation by colleagues and supportive lecturers, an action ultimately interrupted a public address that Minister Willetts was invited to the University to deliver as part of -- ironically -- Cambridge's "Idea of the University" speaker's series.

As the event began, the dissenters in attendance were loud but peaceful, shouting Willetts down; the minister decided to cancel his talk shortly thereafter. While administrators' feathers may have been ruffled, no bones were broken, and the protesters brilliantly demonstrated not only the power and possibilities of conscientious dissent in a supposed democracy (and thus one of the ideals of true democracy), but also opened a portal, whether the University was aware of it or not, to increased and necessary colloquy about the voice of students not only in the life of the university but in the nation and world at large -- their world, to be sure, as well as yours and mine.

And so for this action Cambridge University decided to pursue a course of extreme disciplinary action against Holland -- singled out from at least 60 protesters -- the message of which is as ugly in its repressiveness as it is admonitory: Do not dare to mess with Big Daddy, it says, at the risk of being both silenced and crushed.

Such repression visited upon another human being is clearly unconscionable, and especially so in an environment in which, ostensibly, humane ideas and discussions -- and dissent -- can, and should, be welcomed. The University's attempt to make an example of Holland is deplorable in the context of one of the world's most venerable institutions that is still viewed as paramount for the quality of its education and its repeated success at developing and producing greatness. Indeed, greatness has loomed large in the numerous dissidents who made their voices heard throughout Cambridge's 800-year-plus history; Holland and his colleagues, and those of us who recently silently protested his punishment, form part of what every healthy democracy requires: voices that challenge and critique what clearly is, in this case, abusive authority.

Ultimately, Holland's plight, and Cambridge's Goliathism against him, send deep chills to a creative writer who is also a political activist and intellectual -- for if the University's ugly lesson here is that one should generally shut up and not risk disagreement, where does that leave those of us for whom the unfettered imagination's possibilities are our daily landscape, where there can and should be no prescriptive orders, and where, in the difficult pursuit of art, there is always contention and disagreement?

What does Holland's punishment signify for a Visiting Fellow invited here for a year to make art and engage in dialogue with others? Does it mean that, here at Cambridge, I should make certain to know my place and watch what I say? (Such possible harnessings carry particularly troubling implications for a writer who, like me, is both black, gay, and a Jamaican-American descendant of Britain's colonizing past.) In an e-mail sent yesterday to a friend, I remarked half-playfully, but also seriously, that I hoped my British visa wouldn't suddenly be rescinded because of this article's publication. But then much better to confront injustice, I thought, and support the bravery of so many students and of Holland in particular, than to bask without remark in a golden palace that, these days, discloses more clearly its insidious corners. It is an act of conscience and humanity for all of us to deplore and resist the sort of violence that Cambridge University is now attempting to enforce against someone who merely said, as was his human right: I respectfully disagree.