The recent protests for racial justice, initially triggered by the killing of George Floyd, have refocused attention on our universities. The University of Liverpool pledged to rename its Gladstone Hall, in honour of the Liberal Victorian prime minister, because his father was a slave plantation owner. Oxford’s long-standing “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign was given a new lease of life following statue removals in Bristol and London. At Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, a commemorative window to the 20th century eugenicist Ronald Fisher has been removed.

For some, these gestures of good will towards the Black Lives Matter movement will be considered a further concession in the ideological contest over the national culture. For others, our top universities are to be seen as vanguards in the effort to “decolonise” society, whether by altering teaching curricula or convening internal “inquiries” into historic institutional associations with the slave trade.

A major sticking point in that contest is the notion of academic freedom. Activists and conservatives well recognise that the question of who is permitted to access academic capital – through fellowships and other professional advancements – will determine the long game in the cultural struggle. The Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson’s edict in February that the government could intervene if universities failed to show leadership in protecting academic free speech will have been read primarily as an intervention in response to “no platforming”. There is mounting evidence that conservative speakers regularly receive a cold shoulder as they are shamed off campus by vocal student activists.

The more important fight, however, is in academic appointments. Here, university executives have much greater power to shape the debate.

The University of Cambridge demonstrated leadership in this area recently. Last week it defended the promotion to professorship of Priyamvada Gopal, an academic at the English Faculty well known for her incendiary tweets on colonialism and social justice. Her recent tweet claiming that “White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives” prompted an online petition demanding her dismissal which garnered over 1,000 signatures. Despite the fact that the tweet was deemed to have violated Twitter’s guidelines on respectful engagement and was removed, and that many readers, mainly white, interpreted it as racist, the university stood firm, defending “the right of its academics to express their own lawful opinions which others might find controversial”.

While the optics of the event were bad, the English Faculty insisted that Gopal’s promotion was decided months in advance of the controversy. Hers is a firebrand style of engagement which perhaps does not do enough to clarify her ideas to a wider, non-academic audience. But that is no reason to sack her.

Compare the University’s response to Gopal, however, with its response to Jordan Peterson last year. Like Gopal, he is an academic with a high public profile and what some consider to be controversial views. His offer of a visiting fellowship by the Divinity Faculty was rescinded early last year without warning.

The rationale behind the Faculty’s judgement is patently inconsistent. Peterson’s offer was retracted ostensibly because he had been pictured with a man sporting an Islamophobic T-shirt a few months before. In a defence of the decision by the University’s vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope, it was claimed that this “casual endorsement by association of this message was thought to be antithetical to the work of a Faculty that prides itself in the advancement of inter-faith understanding.” Toope then reiterated his view that “robust debate can scarcely occur… when some members of the community are made to feel personally attacked, not for their ideas but for their very identity.”

Notwithstanding the fact that Peterson, unlike Gopal, is not an existing employee of the institution, it seems clear that many of these same arguments could have been applied to Gopal but were not. The notion of “endorsement by association” is always a slippery one, especially when applied to public figures with large and diverse followings. A thorough enough search of Gopal’s Twitter supporters also reveals an association with bigots who have appropriated her views, over whom Gopal can have no responsibility. Given the optics of her attack on “white lives”, and her inadequate efforts to clarify her position, it seems that arguments predicated on “identity”, not “ideas”, can indeed fall within the university’s ethos of free speech when it is pushed to defend one of its own.

Universities need to decide which side of the culture war they are on. The American psychologist Jonathan Haidt has argued that Western universities must now choose between the two “incompatible sacred values” which he designates as “Truth” and “Social Justice”. The former seeks to enquire about the world, presenting it as it is; the latter seeks to change it. These two purposes translate into two cultures of speech: one predicated on the free, dialectic exchange of ideas, and the other seeking to mould that exchange in pursuit of what it considers to be moral and political progress.

Cambridge University’s defence of its academics’ right to express opinions “which others might find controversial” signals a principled stance. That statement is the most explicit defence of academic freedom of speech I heard from the university in my three years there as an undergraduate. To convince the outside world of this, however, it must do so consistently. As student activists continue to manipulate the language of liberalism to their own ends, university executives cannot do the same.

This is vital given the growing chasm between university cultures and the rhythms of public debate. In a Policy Exchange report published in February, the authors noted that “there is a growing risk that some on the right may begin to see the sector as actively and irredeemably opposed to conservative and British values” and that “the sector needs to build bridges, not dig in, and demonstrate that it is a national asset, prized by the whole nation and capable of engaging with the values of those outside the educated metropolitan elite.”

Academic excellence and social inclusivity, the two pillars of our education system, meet in the debate on academic freedom. How, and for whom, academic positions are maintained goes to the core of how universities present themselves to students, academics and wider society.

Such leadership need not be morally relativistic. David Starkey, for example, resigned from his honorary fellowship with the university following the announcement of a review. Universities have that power. It is precisely that power that will shape the long-term outcome of the national debate.

For too long universities have equivocated or, worse, capitulated on issues of political controversy. They cannot let the enduring perception of our universities – left-wing autonomous zones policed by student union activists – go unchallenged.

Sooner or later, universities will have to make clear choices about what they stand for, and be willing to defend them – consistently. Only that way will universities be able to survive and thrive as the struggle over our national culture continues.