The Labour Women’s Declaration working group stands in solidarity with Professor Kathleen Stock of Sussex University, bullied off campus by extremists in the name of ‘transactivism’. In the last few days we’ve heard about the barrage of threats and abuse to which she’s been subjected online and the masked protests and abusive posters that have faced her on campus. We extend our unconditional support to this brave feminist and lesbian who has continued to speak and write calmly and rationally about women’s rights in the face of appalling bullying and intimidation.
The interview published by the Times today tells us that: “She filed a complaint against Sussex University in recent months because she believed it had failed to support her.” In that context, the statement of support made by Sussex University VC Adam Tickell is too little, too late. Tickell told the BBC:
“It’s absolutely clear that our staff have an untrammelled right to say and believe what they think, so we take it very seriously if people try to prevent that right being exercised.”
Fine words, but nothing has happened – yet – to restore that supposedly untrammelled right to Kathleen Stock. Tickell should read today’s article, reflect on what has been allowed to unfold on his watch, and take decisive action to change the campus climate.
In her Times interview, Kathleen referred to a “culture of fear” taking over university campuses. We know she is right. Testimonies on the GC Academia website and in an earlier collection compiled by Kathleen tell an alarming story of the silencing of women academics and students. The anonymous contributors describe how gender identity ideology has become an unchallengeable orthodoxy at their universities, enforced by Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) departments, LGBT networks, and the academics’ trade union UCU. Early career researchers, almost inevitably on precarious contracts, tell that they cannot dissent because they would never get another contract. Mid-career academics describe how fear of the consequences of dissent – including complaints from a tiny number of very determined students, difficulties getting published in an increasingly authoritarian publishing world, and threats and abuse of the kind experienced by Stock – keep them silent. The reputational consequences of speaking out could end their careers. Students tell of the lack of spaces for free and open discussion.
This is a truly appalling state of affairs in UK universities. How did we get here?
It seems that a fairly newly minted ideological belief, that ‘gender identity’ (an innate sense of being male or female or both or neither) should trump biological sex as a way of determining who is a woman, a man or something else, has become unassailable on university campuses. Language changes constantly, and concepts evolve, that much is true. But the replacement of biological sex with gender identity in law, policy and everyday life has enormous consequences for everyone. It has particular consequences for women: the rights, provisions and protections won by women to fight sexism have been exercised until now on the basis of sex. Scholars in a range of university disciplines, including philosophy, sociology, law, criminology, data science, education, medicine, nursing, economics, linguistics, and many others all have a legitimate interest in exploring these consequences through rational, evidence-based research and public engagement. That is an important function of universities – to provide spaces in which new ideologies can be tested, explored and examined without fear nor favour.
But today’s corporatised university sector has failed to provide such a space. Instead of being places where this new ideology can be freely examined by scholars and students, universities have become the engine room of its most extreme and authoritarian versions. Any academic or student who dares to suggest that biological sex is fixed, dimorphic and has ongoing political consequences risks being accused of hatefulness. They are likely to be told that saying such a thing harms trans students and colleagues, and invalidates their existence. The bar for being considered transphobic is impossibly low: in effect anything short of a complete acceptance of the orthodoxy that transwomen are literally women, could result in accusations of transphobia.
The University of Edinburgh is a good example of how a culture of fear can take hold. Earlier this year Ann Henderson spoke out about her treatment during her three-year term as Rector. Our sister organisation WPUK called her account “a damning indictment of the pernicious culture flourishing on some University campuses”. Ann wrote that she wanted to work with staff and student unions to improve working and studying conditions at the university. However:
“[M]uch of the time was taken up with fending off repeated unfounded allegations that effectively went unchallenged by the University… I was subject to unsubstantiated public allegations of transphobia and abuse from a University of Edinburgh student organisation, establishing a pattern of behaviour that continued throughout my term of office.”
During the three years (March 2018-March 2021) of Ann’s rectorship, all the signs pointed to a deterioration of the campus climate for discussion of sex and gender at Edinburgh University. A public panel discussion of women’s rights in June 2019 was subjected to a campaign of sustained and hyperbolic abuse which included a petition making defamatory allegations against panellists, unchallenged by university managers. By the time the event went ahead, the climate on campus had been allowed to become so febrile that a massive security operation was needed, and even that was not sufficient to prevent an attack on panellist Julie Bindel as she left the building after the event.
In the autumn of 2019 LWD working group member Dr Shereen Benjamin attempted to organise a public seminar on supporting gender non-conforming and transgender-identifying pupils in schools. University managers insisted on discussing in advance all details of the event with the University’s Staff Pride Network, who subsequently used that information to sabotage the booking system and launch a campaign to prevent the seminar going ahead. The seminar was ‘postponed’ due to fear for the physical safety of speakers and attendees, and still has not been re-scheduled. There have been no other events publicly platforming any critique of gender identity ideology at the university: such discussion has been successfully prevented by extremists and the managers who allow their activities to go unchecked. Meanwhile, multiple events platforming gender identity ideology uncritically, as an unassailable truth, have gone ahead without obstacle. And more recently, in the past few days Shereen has been targeted online as a consequence of speaking in a personal capacity at our Brighton meeting.
These public indications that something is not right are the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The real problem is an underlying culture that has made critical examination of gender identity ideology unthinkable as well as unsayable at Edinburgh. Academics who are known to believe and say that biological sex is fixed, dimorphic and consequential face being quietly dropped from teaching teams, and are targeted by the university’s Staff Pride Network for censure via its blogs and mailing lists. Lesbian students are forced to meet ‘underground’ because the student union LGBT spaces and groups are hostile to women who consider themselves same-sex (not same-gender) attracted. Managers at Edinburgh University have been repeatedly told about this culture of fear, but they have failed to intervene. Instead, Edinburgh’s Principal Peter Mathieson and other leaders appear to value compliance with the demands of the powerful lobby group Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Scheme above academic freedom.
One of the issues with the chilling effect is that this culture of fear is hard to expose. Academics and students, most of them women and many of them lesbians, cannot speak out for fear of reprisals. This needs to change. Tickell’s statement of support for Kathleen Stock is welcome, but it comes far too late. It should have been made years ago when the campaign against her first started, and it should have been backed up with action. Mathieson should look at what’s happened at Sussex and act now to prevent further escalation at Edinburgh.
Because serious action is needed to restore academic freedom and freedom of expression in universities, and to protect the rights of feminist academics and students. It is not transphobic to research, teach and speak about women’s rights, or to examine the effects of the institutionalisation of gender identity ideology. Academics who do so should not face knee-jerk accusations of transphobia, and university managers should ensure there are policies in place to protect their members from unfounded, reputation-ruining and potentially career-ending allegations.
The Universities of Sussex and Edinburgh may be particular hotspots, but they’re far from alone. It’s not enough for university managers to make public statements of commitment to academic freedom. Those statements alone will change nothing.
We were heartened when the University of Essex commissioned an independent legal report into the cancellation of events featuring Professors Jo Phoenix and Rosa Freedman in 2019. The resulting Reindorf Report, published in May 2021, set out evidence of a hostile environment for feminist academics and students at Essex, and made a number of recommendations, including that the University review its relationship with Stonewall in light of the fact that its policy on trans and non-binary staff “states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is”. In an unexpected turn, Essex Vice Chancellor Professor Anthony Forster later issued what reads as a grovelling apology to ‘our trans and non-binary students’. Instead of taking the opportunity to follow up on the recommendations in the Reindorf Report, it would appear that Essex has capitulated instead to bullies. For a large and prestigious university, whose leaders have access to significant power and resource, this is shameful.
Put simply, university managers need to grow a backbone. The organisation Sex Matters has sent a summary of the Reindorf Report together with a summary of the Forstater Judgement which confirmed that gender-critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act, to all university managers in the UK. We are not aware that any of them have taken any action. There should be no further prevarication.
We call on universities to:
1) Investigate acts of intimidation and abuse such as those aimed at Kathleen Stock, and take robust disciplinary action against the perpetrators
2) Involve feminist academics and students in discussions about their experiences of being silenced on campus, and about specific actions that can be taken to address the campus climate
3) Disassociate themselves from the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme, and where Stonewall have been involved in staff training and policy formation, redress the balance by inviting groups such as LGB Alliance and Sex Matters to talk to staff and policy-makers
4) Define what transphobic conduct is and what it is not, also taking account of the Forstater Judgement which confirmed that gender-critical beliefs are protected in law
5) Based on a defensible definition of transphobia and other beliefs that may be considered ‘hateful’, clarify the relationship between harassment and academic freedom, and clarify what can be considered acceptable boundaries for protest
6) Work positively and proactively with students to teach the art and craft of respectful, evidence-based debate
7) Appoint a champion for academic freedom who can intervene promptly to address any threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus
8) Reverse the trend towards casualisation of the academic profession: workers on precarious contracts are especially vulnerable to acts of bullying and intimidation and are not in a position to take intellectual risks
We are proud to stand with Professor Kathleen Stock and the many feminists in universities who face curtailment of their rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression.