University apologises after asking social model critic to deliver first ‘Finkelstein lecture’

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A university has been forced to remove the name of a pioneer of the disabled people’s movement from an annual series of lectures, after it invited a leading critic of his work to deliver the first talk.

The University of Leeds decided to launch the Finkelstein Lecture Series on Equality and Social Justice in memory of Vic Finkelstein, the disabled academic and anti-apartheid campaigner who died six years ago and whose ground-breaking work laid the basis for what became known as the “social model of disability”.

But the decision to launch the series – which “celebrates scholars working at the intersection of academia and activism” – and invite Professor Tom Shakespeare (pictured) to deliver the first lecture, was made without any consultation with Finkelstein’s family or his closest academic colleagues.

The university decided to use Finkelstein’s name in recognition of his contribution to its School of Sociology and Social Policy between 1994 and 2008 as a visiting senior research fellow.

But it has now removed his name from the event after four of the academics he worked with most closely, themselves all key figures in the field – Professors Mike Oliver, Colin Barnes, Len Barton and John Swain* – wrote to the university’s vice-chancellor to ask him to “urgently” reconsider the plans.

They said in the letter last week: “We have worked closely with [Vic Finkelstein], individually and collectively… and a central tenet that has guided his own work throughout this time has been ‘nothing about us without us’.

“This planned series totally ignores this and we can say with certainty that Mr Finkelstein would not have consented to these plans.”

Although the lecture was set to go ahead this evening (Thursday), all references to Vic Finkelstein have now been removed from the event.

The lecture was being co-hosted by the university’s Centre for Disability Studies, but it stressed that it had no involvement in launching the event or in inviting Shakespeare to deliver the lecture.

Oliver was the first academic to be appointed as a professor of disability studies and it was he who described Finkelstein’s redefinition of the fundamental principles of disability as “the social model of disability”.

He worked with Finkelstein for more than 30 years on various projects, and the three other professors had all worked with or for Finkelstein for more than 20 years before his death in 2011.

Oliver told Disability News Service (DNS) yesterday (Wednesday) that the choice of Shakespeare to deliver the first lecture was “wholly inappropriate” because he had been so critical of Finkelstein’s work, including in his book Disability Rights And Wrongs.

He said Shakespeare had once said in a lecture that the social model “should be thrown out of the window”, and then pointed outside.

Disability Rights And Wrongs was, he said, “an attack on Vic’s work and my work, saying the social model is wrong and it’s time we got rid of it”.

He also said that Finkelstein had “no time” for the kind of “qualitative” research that Shakespeare was planning to talk about in his lecture.

Oliver is close to Finkelstein’s family and he said they had confirmed that there had been no discussion with them about the lecture series.

He also pointed out that the university had previously rejected a request by Colin Barnes – another key figure in the movement – for Finkelstein to be awarded an honorary doctorate.

Oliver said he and his three fellow academics had heard nothing from the university’s vice-chancellor since their letter, but saw last Friday that Finkelstein’s name had been removed from publicity about the lecture.

He said: “I am annoyed that they [used his name]and that they have not even bothered to reply to our letter, which is pretty tatty.

“All the four of us professors know is that Vic’s name is no longer on the website.”

When contacted by DNS, Shakespeare stressed that the lecture would go ahead, without Finkelstein’s name attached to it.

But he said that he would be talking about disabled people in southern Africa, which is where Finkelstein was born and raised, and that he would discuss psychology, which Finkelstein had studied.

He said: “I had no intention of disrespecting his memory or work. This feels like another attempt to close down debate. Are we really ‘no platforming’ people we disagree with?”

He added: “Talk to Leeds Uni about their choice of speaker, not me.

“Vic was a highly original thinker. He and I had very positive conversations together. I never ‘attacked’ his work, I debated it.

“In a world with many huge issues for disabled people, this is a non-story.

“The research on which I am reporting gives voice to over 100 disabled African people. That seems an appropriate way of marking Vic’s memory [he was born and raised in South Africa and was imprisoned for anti-apartheid activities, before coming to Britain in 1968 as a refugee].

“As you know, the lecture is now going ahead but not in honour of Vic. So they got their way. End of story. No further comment.”

A University of Leeds spokesman said: “We recognise the sensitivities involved and regret any upset caused.

“We removed references to Mr Finkelstein from the event after being made aware of the unhappiness of his family and former colleagues.

“The new Equality and Social Justice Lecture Series organised by the School of Sociology and Social Policy reflects the university’s commitment to celebrating and promoting debate. 

“We would like to clarify that the Centre for Disability Studies was not involved in the choice of speaker for the event or the original decision to associate it with Mr Finkelstein’s name.”

*Mike Oliver is Emeritus Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Greenwich; Colin Barnes is Emeritus Professor of Disability Studies at the University of Leeds; Len Barton is Emeritus Professor of Inclusive Education at University College London’s Institute of Education; and John Swain is Emeritus Professor of Disability Studies and Inclusion at the University of Northumbria