AC Grayling: University challenged

Who would have thought that the founding of a rival to Oxbridge would be greeted with such abuse – and even smoke bombs? Certainly not our most recognisable philosopher whose brainchild it is

If he was not such a rational man, AC Grayling might have resorted to tearing at the roots of his magnificent silver mane.

What should have been his great year, when the two life-defining projects that he had been planning for more than a decade were finally presented to the public, has seen him cast as an object of scorn.

"Nauseating" was one critic's view of his great opus The Good Book: A Secular Bible, published in April. "Hair-tearingly frustrating" was the Financial Times's opinion of Grayling's 600-page compilation of humanist scriptures.

Britain's most recognisable philosophy don would not have been pulling at his follicles because of such sniping – he is too smooth for that. He is, he says, "the velvet version" in a triumvirate of academic atheists that includes Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. But his nap was ruffled again last week.

"Appalling," said Dr Rowan Tomlinson, tutor of New College, Oxford, giving her verdict on Grayling's plan for an elite college that he hopes to open in London next year. The New College of Humanities, which some have characterised as a British Harvard, has been gathering less complimentary descriptions from academic colleagues, including "Jamie's University", (after Jamie Oliver). It plans to have student fees of £18,000 a year and teaching from a roster of academics who enjoy a similarly high profile, including Dawkins and the historian Niall Ferguson. Angry student groups promised to disrupt the scheme by flooding it with false applications. Grayling's attempts to explain himself at an event at Foyles bookshop in London were thwarted when protesters let off a smoke bomb. This last gesture does seem to have unsettled him.

The anger towards one of Britain's foremost contemporary thinkers is partly driven by a sense of betrayal. The author of more than 30 books has set himself up as a champion of fairness and equality. His humanist principles include the notion that religious groups "have no greater right than anybody else, any political party or Women's Institute or trade union". Writing in The Guardian in 2009, he complained of the "overweening privilege" accorded to religious lobbies and said it was easy to show that "the mindset which looks for and tests the facts rather than shores up ancient edifices of authority is likely to make the world a fairer one economically and in power relations too". He is seen as a liberal and, until this week, a supporter of the public education system.

But last week, as students denounced him for "hypocrisy", the professor had few allies, save for the Tory Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who rang him up to congratulate him. "The whole thing is such unambiguously good news that I scarcely know where to begin," wrote the Mayor in a mischievous piece in The Daily Telegraph in which he claimed that he had also toyed with the idea of setting up a "Rejects' College" for bourgeois children who had failed to get a place at Oxbridge.

Despite his velvet exterior, Grayling has never shirked from controversy. Just over a decade ago, he made a conscious decision to climb down from the ivory towers of academe, where he had been writing technical philosophy, to try to alter the course of the public debate. He wants to make a difference. "You can either scream and yell and complain about what's happening – and what's happening is terrible. Or you can do something about it," he told the London Evening Standard last week in response to the attacks on his plans for an academic centre for excellence.

In his 2006 book Among the Dead Cities, Grayling was not afraid to accuse Allied commanders of war crimes in their bombing of civilians in the Second World War. While predicting that the book would "cause a good deal of annoyance", history professor John Charmley, reviewing the title in The Guardian, concluded that "books like this should be compulsory reading for all senior politicians". Grayling himself later told The Independent on Sunday that "we haven't discussed it [Allied war crimes] because we won".

Grayling, 62, is a brilliant communicator. His great skill is not in original philosophy but in presenting the ideas of others in a way that enables modern readers to relate them to their own lives. "The Good Book is made out of Aristotle and Pliny, Seneca and Confucius and all these great people, and I've just brought together their insights," he admitted recently. "So when [critics] criticise it, they're criticising them, not me." Some reviewers complained that the book – which was described by The Independent as "a brilliantly labyrinthine palace of pastiche" – did not clearly distinguish between the contributions of the eminent philosopher and his great forebears.

He grew up in Zambia in a British colonial family and was reading Plato at the age of 12 before moving to England in his teens. The murder of his sister in South Africa affected him so deeply that he gave up eating tropical fruit because of its associations with the continent of his birth. The tragedy, he has said, turned him into a workaholic. He studied at the University of Sussex, the University of London and Magdalen College, Oxford, before lecturing in philosophy at St Anne's College, Oxford, and becoming professor of philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2005. He is also a representative on the UN Human Rights Council and is to become president of the British Humanist Association.

He recently announced that he was giving up his Birkbeck position to pursue his dream of establishing the New College of Humanities. The planned institution was given the trading name Grayling Hall and would represent a remarkable legacy for a man who dismisses thoughts of an afterlife with jokes about fairies at the bottom of the garden. The philosopher is married, for the second time, to the best-selling novelist Katie Hickman, who also grew up overseas, in a diplomatic family, and who attended a boarding school and Pembroke College, Oxford. The couple have two children, both of whom are attending leading private schools.

Grayling is a box-office attraction at literary events and can guarantee to fill the room. Audiences are drawn to his embodiment of the 18th-century public intellectual, with his measured debating style. Those that have shared a platform with him say that there is steel inside his velvet glove and that, after leaving the stage, he can be withering in his dismissal of those he considers his intellectual inferiors.

He extends that disdain to the philosophical work of Alain de Botton. "He's a perfectly nice fellow, but it's not philosophy," he told The Guardian. "It's cream puff stuff."

Perhaps he is miffed that De Botton enjoys a greater television profile, though he would deny that he covets the spotlight. When he talks of himself, modesty is a recurring theme. He is "a very modest character" and The Good Book was "very modestly done".

Even his crowning glory is held in place only by "a bit of sticky stuff just to hold it up there", he protested to interviewer Decca Aitkenhead in April. When another journalist visited the philosopher's home last week, he discovered nine cans of hairspray in the toilet on the "his" side of the sink, mostly Pantene's Ice Hold brand. Even for AC Grayling, some things are sacred.

A life in brief

Born: Anthony Clifford Grayling, 3 April 1949, Luanshya, Zambia.

Family: Father worked for Standard Chartered Bank in East Africa, where Grayling spent his formative years. Lives with his wife, the novelist Katie Hickman, daughter and step-son in east London.

Education: After Falcon College, Zimbabwe, Grayling moved to the UK where he graduated with two simultaneous BAs from Sussex and the University of London, before an MA and PhD from Magdalen College, Oxford.

Career: Grayling was a professor at St Anne's College Oxford and Birkbeck College London. In June 2011 he founded the London-based New College of Humanities.

He says: "I think it's up to people who feel that they've got to grow a beard, or wear the hijab, to think very seriously about how they're going to relate to something which, after all, pre-exists them."

They say: "Grayling is the kind of liberal who is prepared to let equality go hang. Freedom from state intervention for him means freedom to charge students sky-high fees." Terry Eagleton