Professor fired for road signs post

Wrexham University has fired a professor for stating that Welsh road signs ought to be written only in English.   

Professor Nigel Hunt, a visiting professor of psychology at Wrexham University, posted the following in a Facebook group:   

Signs like this. They are confusing as they contain irrelevant and – to most people – unintelligible information. Road signs in two languages are potentially dangerous as it takes longer to determine the message. As most people even in Wales do not understand these signs (the Welsh language is declining despite attempts to popularise it) then please just use English. 

Professor Hunt’s post was accompanied by a picture of a Welsh road sign, featuring Welsh and English text. His comments drew anger from some Facebook users, and some abuse. Wrexham University announced an internal review, and then fired Professor Hunt, on the grounds that he had brought the university into “disrepute”.  

This is an appalling, and absurd, violation of academic freedom. Hunt has every right to voice his opinions about road signage. His view, in brief, is that A) bilingual road signs increase the risk of accident, and that B) minimising this risk should be prioritised over promoting the Welsh language. A) is an empirical psychological claim, and as such falls partially within Hunt’s area of expertise. Hunt is on record as stating that dual-language signs can increase “cognitive load” on drivers and that there is evidence that this is “detrimental to driving”. There is indeed some evidence to suggest that dual-language signs negatively affect driving, for instance this recent study. One can reasonably disagree, but this provides no grounds for censorship.  

Hunt’s second claim B) is a value judgement. It is dubious that it rests on a negative view of the Welsh language (as nearly all his critics have assumed). It is more likely that Hunt simply thinks that considerations of safety should have paramount importance in determining what goes on road signs. But it makes no difference whether Hunt’s critics are right here: professors must not be fired for criticising the national culture. One country where professors who criticise the national culture are fired is Putin’s Russia. CAF has received legal advice that the dismissal is likely to violate three separate laws protecting academic freedom: the Education Act 1986, the Equality Act 2010, and the Human Rights Act 1998.  

Wrexham University has failed to maintain political neutrality on the issue of bilingualism in Wales, stating “we are proud to be a Welsh institution and are proud of our Welsh history and heritage”. By all means, staff and students of the University may be proud of Wrexham as a Welsh institution, but Wrexham itself must not have a view on this political matter. Wrexham is not a political institution. Maintaining neutrality is not incompatible with the University’s obligations under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011 to give Welsh equal status with English. Universities are obliged to obey the law, but this does not mean they have to penalise their staff when they venture to criticise the law.    

Wrexham University appears to have made no serious attempt to consider its duties to protect academic freedom, or what its policy is at all. It has simply tried to placate criticism by whatever means it thought might be effective. Hunt’s post, as the University puts it, has “brought our name into disrepute”. Wrexham appears to be attempting to gain popularity at the expense of academic freedom, and at the expense of its own professors.