Members of the supposed 'Thiel network' were responsible for the invitations of Jordan Peterson and Charles Murray to speak at Cambridge Wikimedia Commons

Rebels within the Divinity faculty have called on the University to investigate a network of right-wing academics reportedly backed by billionaire Trump donor Peter Thiel. The rebel group suggests the network is engaged in an “organised campaign” aimed at ousting the University leadership – including outgoing vice-chancellor, Stephen Toope.

The self-described “Divine dissenters” demand Cambridge investigates claims of “grooming” and “radicalisation” by the right-wing network, which has been accused of recruiting interns to work for Thiel and lobbied for Jordan Peterson and American sociologist, Charles Murray – labelled a “white nationalist” – to address Cambridge students.

In a three-page statement seen by Varsity, to be sent to the University, the group asks: “Was this wave of media pressure on the VC an organised campaign, seeking the VC’s resignation?”

The statement – which refers to the network of right-leaning scholars as a “fifth column”, whose aim was to “provoke changes” at the top of the University – comes after a damning report in the Byline Times which claimed that Thiel, the controversial founder of Paypal and a high-profile supporter of the former US president, was funding a “race science crusade” at Cambridge University.

According to the paper, the “Thiel network” is centred on a group of “anti-woke” Cambridge academics who felt that the “liberal agenda was going too far.” Thiel’s chief of staff, Charles Vaughan, who reportedly played a “pivotal role” cultivating the network.

Sources familiar with the group’s activities told the Byline Times that Vaughan was a “regular fixture” at meetings, flying out to participate in gatherings at the University in order to find “clever people who were sympathetic within a conservative frame.” Vaughan is said to have lobbied for Peterson to come to Cambridge.

The first gathering is said to have taken place in late 2018 at the Hawks’ Club.

Supposedly present at the secret gatherings were several staff from the Divinity faculty, including Trinity English Director of Studies, Professor Michael Hurley, and philosophy lecturer, Dr James Orr.

When asked if they had met with Vaughan, neither Hurley nor Orr provided Varsity with a response.

According to Byline Times’ sources, these scholars “felt their voices were being pushed aside, and felt beleaguered and threatened. That dissatisfaction was a fertile breeding ground for someone to come in with an organising agenda.”

Sources said that as meetings went on it became clear “that money was involved” as well as a “deliberate and systematic attempt at recruitment and fostering relationships.” Vaughan allegedly provided that “external impetus” thanks to his “definitive connection to an external source with some financial weight.”

In their demand for an investigation, the “divine dissenters” claimed that “safeguarding concerns” were raised by the fact that the right-wing network reportedly extended to students, with academics recruiting interns to work for Peter Thiel.

The Byline Times says that the network’s activities focused on a “need to push-back against classic ‘culture war’ issues.”

A supposed member of the network, Dr James Orr invited Jordan Peterson to give a series of lectures in Cambridge last month – a move which Arif Ahmed, who the Byline Times alleged is also part of this “circle of conversation”, greeted as a “victory” for free speech in Cambridge.

In December 2020, Ahmed also led the charge against Stephen Toope’s free speech amendment which proposed that other views be “respected” as opposed to “tolerated.” Winning by almost 90%, Ahmed wrote that the victory served as an example of a “fight-back” against censorship.

However, since revelations of the “Thiel network” broke last week, left-wing academic Professor Priyamvada Gopal tweeted these activities suggest a “dodgy and illegitimate influence on university autonomy.”

“This is not just a group of academics with similar views and political interests coming together. A powerful, wealthy foreign entity not connected to academia or research, mired in political power-brokering & lobbying is seeking to shape what is happening on a university campus.”

Ahmed claimed there was no “outside influence” in resisting the Vice-Chancellor’s free speech amendments last year: “I wrote my own amendments myself in consultation with other Cambridge academics.”

Peter Thiel is a tech billionaire who, between 1990 and 2016, gave $10m in donations to the Republican Party. In 2016, he gave $1m to the Trump campaign, and in 2021 gave Arizona senate hopeful Blake Masters – whose campaign is based on the false claim that Trump won the 2020 election – $10m to fund his campaign.

Following Trump’s victory in 2016, Thiel allegedly looked to extend his influence beyond America by “seeding the UK coalition of anti-liberal academics centred around Cambridge University.” The culmination of which was reportedly the Cambridge “Thiel network.”

The demand for an investigation follows an initial open letter published last week, which asked that the faculty “publicly distance” itself from the hosting of figures that “threaten students of colour.”

The rebels point to Peterson, who used air quotes to describe “racism” in an appearance on BBC 1’s Question Time last month, but mainly controversial academics hosted by the Trinity Forum Europe such as Charles Murray, who was widely denounced for suggesting IQ varied according to race.

English students have joined the “dissenters” in condemning the revelations, arguing that the presence of Trinity director of studies, Michael Hurley, in the network is “antithetical” to the “inclusive” values the faculty claims to uphold.

Varsity reached out to James Orr, Michael Hurley, the Divinity and English faculties and the University for comment.

Corrections were made to this article on 15/12/2021 to clarify the nature of Ahmed’s alleged involvement with the ‘Thiel network’.