THE principal of the University of St Andrews has vowed to protect her staff from ‘any external pressure’ following reports of an SNP minister complaining about a Scots-based academic backing the UK.
Professor Louise Richardson wrote to all staff at the institution calling on them to ignore political intimidation after becoming ‘concerned’ at reports that Sports Minister Shona Robison had contacted Dundee University over the conduct of a history professor who attended a pro-Union Better Together event.
Ms Robison questioned whether Professor Chris Whatley’s appearance at the meeting was ‘compatible’ with him overseeing an academic study of next year’s referendum.
First Minister Alex Salmond yesterday defended the minister in the wake of criticism from opposition parties and senior academics, telling MSPs that she had done nothing wrong.
But Prof Richardson wrote to the 2,000 staff members at the university, encouraging them to express their views, ‘whatever they are’.
She added: “At times of national uncertainty the public justifiably look to universities for reasoned debate and considered argument and I think it incumbent upon us to provide just that.
“Whether or not my personal views are in accord with yours, I assure you that any external pressure to limit or suppress debate will stop at my door.”
Prof Richardson referred to an inscription over the gate to the former University Botanical Garden that says: “They have said and they will say. Let them be saying.”
“It is a useful and timeless reminder of the university’s commitment to free speech,” she concluded in the letter.
The principal, who has been in post since 2009, added that she did not feel it was in the university’s ‘best interests’ for her to express her personal views at the time.
The Daily Telegraph today reports that sources close to Prof Richardson believed she was apprehensive about making her own views known in case it discouraged staff from following her lead if they disagreed with her.
A spokesman for the Better Together campaign said: “This is a welcome intervention from one of Scotland’s most respected figures. The appalling bullying and attempts to silence people by the SNP that we have seen this week have no place in our country.
“Everyone, no matter what their view is, should be allowed to speak freely without fear of a government minister complaining to their employers. Professor Richardson has shown exceptional leadership on this issue.”
Leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson yesterday told MSPs at First Minister’s Questions that Prof Whatley’s views should have been welcomed.
She hit out at Ms Robison for ‘questioning his integrity’, adding: “You say something that the SNP doesn’t like and you can expect an intimidating contact’.
Ms Davidson also pointed the finger at the First Minister, claiming he had ‘refused to condemn such tactics’ and ‘refuses to back free speech’.
Mr Salmond rubbished the accusation, calling it ‘total and utter nonsense’, insisting: “The words ‘intimidation’ and ‘Shona Robison’ don’t sit easily together.’
He added that he supported Prof Whatley’s objective, neutral chairing’ of the Dundee-based referendum project.