Schools and gender: the unfinished history of an open seminar

Chances are most people reading this will be aware that one of the current flashpoints for academic freedom is the debate on sex, gender and gender identity. You’ve probably heard of Professor Kathleen Stock who was hounded out of her job at the University of Sussex, Professor Selina Todd who needed security guards to accompany her to her lectures in Oxford where she teaches and researches working-class women’s history, and Professor Jo Phoenix, currently raising funds to take her former employer, the Open University, to the Employment Tribunal for its failure to protect her from harassment because of her gender-critical beliefs. These three academics share the view that biological sex is dimorphic, fixed and consequential: their research, teaching and public engagement reflects that understanding.

These and a handful of other high-profile cases, mostly involving senior and well-established academics, have been covered in the press, which is why you’ve heard of them. But shocking as they are, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Such cases don’t tell the story of the established but less senior academics quietly side-lined from teaching on courses where any critique of gender-identity theory, or simply an acknowledgement that critique is possible, is likely to provoke complaints from a tiny number of censorious students. They don’t tell the story of junior academics, often on precarious contracts, who are obliged either to go along with the currently fashionable view on sex and gender, or to research and teach something else, because to openly critique gender-identity theory would end their careers before they’ve properly begun. And they don’t tell the story of the public engagement events not organised because to do so is to commit vast reserves of time and energy to dealing with the practicalities and the emotional consequences of being targeted by activists who are determined that critique of gender-identity theory should not be allowed on campus.

What follows is a cautionary tale with, we hope, a happy ending. You may or may not be interested in the substantive issue of sex and gender. But the story is relevant to anyone who cares about academic freedom. As you read it, you may want to bear in mind the following questions, as well as asking your own:

·       What role can (and should) universities play in helping us work through complicated and polarised social and political questions?

·       What can (and should) universities do to make rational, good-faith argument an expectation, even or especially in relation to questions where feelings run high?

·       How can (and should) university leaders defend academic freedom in the context of online threats and harassment?

In December 2019 the University of Edinburgh’s Institute of Education, Teaching and Leadership (an organisational unit within the Moray House School of Education and Sport, MHSES) was due to host a public seminar on schools and gender issues. The seminar was to discuss how gender should be taught in the school curriculum, and how schools and teachers can support gender non-conforming and (rapidly growing numbers of) transgender-identifying pupils. 

The seminar had a long history. Planning had started in July 2019, and the original intention had been to organise a panel of speakers with contrasting views, so that the evidence base could be discussed from different angles. It was organised in response to the Scottish Government withdrawing its support for the LGBT Youth Scotland schools’ guidance on the subject, due to concerns that some of the advice in that guidance was unlawful and some was inappropriate. Invitations to speak at the intended panel discussion were sent to organisations broadly supportive of gender-identity theory (stemming from the belief that individuals have an innate gender identity which overrides biological sex in determining whether a person is a man, a woman or something else), and to individuals and an organisation known to be critical of that theory.

In an increasingly censorious climate both within and beyond our University, speakers who critique gender-identity theory routinely face knee-jerk and unjustified accusations of transphobia and bigotry, and invitations for them to speak are met with smears, slurs and calls for no-platforming. For that reason, any events platforming such speakers are referred to the University Compliance Group (UCG) for approval. Originally constituted to fulfil the Prevent Duty, UCG is a group of senior managers who oversee ‘controversial’ campus events. To date, the University of Edinburgh has hosted just one public event platforming speakers who are critical of gender-identity theory: a 90-minute panel discussion on women’s sex-based rights which took place in June 2019. By contrast, speakers who advocate uncritically for gender-identity theory have been platformed extensively by the University in recent years, and continue to be so.

In August 2019 the event on schools and gender was referred to the UCG for approval, which they gave subject to conditions. The event as originally conceived was to be hosted by MHSES’s continuing professional development team as part of its “In conversation with…” series, and was to be aimed at teachers and education policy-makers. Three organisations that advocate for practices based on gender-identity theory – LGBT Youth Scotland, the Scottish Trans Alliance and the University of Edinburgh Staff Pride Network – were invited to provide speakers. These three organisations declined the invitations on the basis that they would not share a platform with speakers known to critique gender-identity theory, stating that speaking alongside such speakers would give credence to the existence of a debate which the three organisations do not believe is admissible. The event was referred back to the UCG who said that it could go ahead with the invited speakers (those critical of gender-identity theory) who had accepted, but it would need to be a seminar rather than a panel discussion, and could not be advertised as a professional development opportunity. This was acceptable to the organisers and speakers, and detailed preparations got under way.

The day the publicity for the seminar went live, it was targeted by gender-identity activists in the University’s Staff Pride Network committee who issued a blog post attacking it, alleging that the presence of ‘gender-critical’ speakers on campus would have a “harmful impact” on transgender-identifying members of the University community, and accusing the speakers of transphobia. A member of University staff incited her Twitter followers to make bogus bookings. This was a repeat of tactics that had been used to try to stop the event on women’s sex-based rights the previous June. The June panel discussion had seen organisers and speakers having to deal with smears, slurs and threats in the run-up to the event, and had gone ahead with extreme security measures (e.g. bag searches for all audience members, several uniformed and plain clothes security officers in attendance throughout, and an hour-long security briefing for the speakers which included details on the direct escape route from the stage). At the end of the event one of the speakers was physically assaulted by a gender-identity activist, with actual injury only prevented by the prompt action of the Security colleagues who had accompanied the speaker out of the building. Fearing a similar escalation, and with the sabotage of the booking system to manage, the seminar organiser, together with the Head of MHSES, decided that the schools’ seminar should be postponed, to give university managers the opportunity to address the febrile and increasingly hostile climate for discussions of sex, gender and gender identity on campus and thus allow a re-scheduled event to proceed without attack.

Since that time – December 2019 – we are not aware of University of Edinburgh managers taking any action to address that University climate.

Despite the deteriorating campus environment, the seminar organiser and Head of MHSES decided that it was important for the seminar to take place, and began arranging for it to go ahead in May 2020. Before it could be confirmed and advertised, COVID and the campus shut-down forced another postponement.

From the start of 2021 the organiser worked with the Head of MHSES to try to find a way to re-platform the seminar. The heads of the Institute of Education, Teaching and Leadership supported it going ahead in principle, but considered it too risky, and too resource-intensive, for the Institute to continue to host. Heads of various of the MHSES research hubs when approached, came to similar conclusions. In September 2021, having tried numerous options and despite assurances of his personal support for the seminar, the Head of MHSES undertook a risk assessment and decided that it was too risky for the School to host the seminar. It was referred back to the UCG who confirmed their approval. However, with no University organisation, department or grouping willing risk hosting the seminar, it was impossible for it to go ahead, and it looked as though the postponement would de facto become a cancellation.

We think this is unacceptable. No ideology, or body of theory, should be unassailable at a university: the lifeblood of universities is evidence-based discussion and the civilised, robust exchange of ideas. That the climate on our campus is such that the seminar needed to be postponed is disappointing. That the postponement has turned out to be indefinite is shameful.

We are therefore pleased to announce that we will be hosting the seminar as soon as it can be organised, and we are in discussion with the speakers to find a date and agree a format. UCG have confirmed their approval and we are in conversation with managers about the support needed to host the event safely. It will be held on University premises if in-person, or using University IT facilities if online. We are optimistic that the seminar will go ahead before the end of this academic year, and we will release details as soon as we can.

15 replies to “Schools and gender: the unfinished history of an open seminar”

  1. Carol cook says:

    Hello, please could you inform me of dates etc if this goes ahead. Thank you.

    1. sbenjami says:

      The dates and booking details will be posted to this blog, Carol. Thanks for your interest.

  2. J says:

    As a graduate, I’ve been thoroughly disheartened by the shutting down of important topics like this. The increasing censorship within campus over the past decade casts the university in a particularly poor light. I’m glad that this event is now going ahead, although saddened by the needlessly herculean effort it’s taken organisers to reach this point.

    Understand that it’s not just current students and staff who are paying attention: it is the millions of former students who have walked through the university’s doors and shaped the institution. Alumni are legion, global, and watching in dismay.

    In times when courage is sought in increasingly tense times, may the leadership remember just how strong the university’s foundations are and learn to be a bit braver when confronted by bullies.

    All the very best with the seminar.

    1. sbenjami says:

      Thank you!

  3. Louise Hogg says:

    I agree with both Carol Cook and J, above.

    I too would like details of this event when available. If I do not actually attend the event, I would still be keen to be present in the area in a supportive manner.

    As an alumni and former member of staff of twenty years standing, I have watched this and similar episodes with increasing disgust and embarrassment. No organisation is perfect, but Edinburgh University was always an institution I was happy to recommend to potential students and staff of all types. Until, that is, the University began involving itself on one side of beliefs around gender.

    It is not the role of a modern, public university to favour the beliefs of one group of students or staff over another. Let alone to allow the shutting down of alternative, non-violent points of view.

    I left university employment for reasons of ill health and the impracticality of commuting from where I now reside. But never thought I would be relieved to no longer be associated, or bound by the contractual obligation of ‘bringing the University into disrepute’.

    I trust that the University will soon return to the long established view, that no premise, no matter how reasonable or unreasonable, should be treated as ‘no debate’. The more reasonable a premise, the more it will be strengthened via debate, not least by the paucity of contrary arguments. The more unreasonable a premise, the sooner and more clearly it will be shown up as such by debate, saving much wasted investment, in the process.

  4. M says:

    Terfs are not welcome at edinburgh university.

    1. Esther Biscuit says:

      Oh OK ..given your compelling debate skills M, shall I give it a miss then? Erm you might want to try a little harder.. or read the room. These women are incredibly courageous and I would love to hear this lecture

  5. Katie Nicoll Baines says:

    As with any blog, this presents a very specific characterisation of events which thanks to the ability to comment warrants some clarification/correction. The notion that the Scottish Government withdrew its support for LGBT Youth Scotland’s schools guidance is not correct. The Scot gov have taken ownership of the guidance which can be viewed here: https://www.gov.scot/publications/supporting-transgender-young-people-schools-guidance-scottish-schools/pages/5/ It is categorically trans inclusive. It was subject to review in 2020 due to clarification required regarding how it relates to the Equality Act 2010, this was confirmed and can be seen in the detail of the guidance. If readers of this blog are interested in understanding an alternative characterisation of this situation (which this blog refers to but fails to link to) you can read the SPN committee response concerning the 2019 version of this event here: https://blogs.ed.ac.uk/staffpridenetwork/2019/11/14/committee-statement-re-schools-gender-diversity-event/

    1. sbenjami says:

      The blog is correct regarding the LGBT Youth Scotland schools’ guidance. As we noted, the seminar was organised in response to the Scottish Government withdrawing their endorsement of the LGBTYS guidance. This happened in June 2019, when Shirley-Anne Somerville announced in Parliament that the Scottish Government was withdrawing its support for the existing guidance and intended to produce its own version at the end of the year. As noted in the blog, planning on the seminar began the month after that.

      The Government’s promised guidance was then subject to considerable delay, eventually being published in August 2021, more than a year and a half after the seminar was postponed. You describe it as categorically trans inclusive: I would describe it as informed by an uncritical acceptance of gender-identity theory, and this is something that will be discussed in the seminar. But it has no bearing on what appears in the blog, which is correct.

      The Staff Pride Network blog post to which you link is a good demonstration of how the SPN exerts a chilling effect on academic freedom, and, if the post is to be believed, the influence that SPN has on managers. The paragraph beginning “University senior management invited us” is particularly interesting. It does look, from that paragraph, as though senior managers at the University accept your claims that critical discussion of gender-identity theory and its implications (in this case, in schools and for pupils and teachers) has a “harmful impact” and that a seminar, which no-one is under any obligation to attend, constitutes a “difficult time” for a group of students and staff. If that’s the case, it’s hard to see how senior managers can reconcile an acceptance of those claims with their professed commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression. Something, somewhere, isn’t right.

      I particularly like, in the SPN blog, “Due to the refusal of the organiser to host a different event…”. Fancy the event organiser (me) having the temerity not to organise their event the way the SPN conveners wanted it. Do you think SPN should be allowed to control what can and can’t be discussed on campus? Should SPN be able to tell academics what events they can and can’t organise? Why on earth would you have been invited to participate in the research seminar when you’d already refused to share a platform with the other invited speakers – and when your (and the other organisations’) refusal was the reason the panel discussion had been changed to a seminar? And as for “without balance”, when has SPN ever presented a balanced event?

      Perhaps a way forward would be for SPN, which faces no barriers or attempts to stop it organising events, to show some good faith and organise an event where speakers who advocate for gender-identity theory can come together with speakers who are critical of that theory, in relation to a specific focus (doesn’t have to be schools) in a spirit of respectful, evidence-based discussion.

  6. Katie Nicoll Baines says:

    Consideration must of course be paid to academic freedom and what a violation of academic freedom actually looks like. A colleague recently authored this blog on the subject which unpacks some of this discourse in a helpful manner: http://dart.ed.ac.uk/academic-freedom/
    The characterisation of the situation regarding senior academics at other institutions also fails to acknowledge how those same academics have utilised tactics of intimidation against students who criticise them: employing legal threats, and retaliatory institutional disciplinary action. These situations have played out in the public sphere through biased reporting in the mainstream press which fail to accurately characterise the very real threat that anti-trans activism poses both to the safety and security of trans and non-binary staff and students but also their (and their allies) academic freedom to challenge outdated and oversimplified attitudes towards biology, sex and gender.

    1. sbenjami says:

      I agree that consideration must be paid to academic freedom. That’s why we’ve set up a branch of AFAF here at Edinburgh. The blog to which you’ve linked is weak and reflects a very limited conceptualisation on behalf of its author. I’m not going to critique it here – it doesn’t seem fair. If the author of that blog wants to develop their knowledge and understanding of academic freedom, the posts by Jonathan Hearn and Neil Thin on this site might be helpful as a starting point. Many other pieces are, of course, available, and I’m sure we can suggest further reading on request.

      Your post implies that senior academics routinely deploy legal threats and retaliatory disciplinary action. There are, in fact, vanishingly few examples of that happening in relation to the sex and gender identity debate considering what has been happening to gender-critical and similar academics. The academics who have resorted to suggestions of legal action or actual legal action have endured months or years of targeting on social media, and real-life consequences including death and rape threats, their property being damaged, disruption of their family life, and attempted physical assault. They’ve tried to use institutional disciplinary procedures to stop some extreme harassment – bear in mind that almost all universities, including ours, have an approach to student discipline that is educative first, and only punitive as a last resort. But spineless managers have refused even to take disciplinary action that is pastoral and educative in nature, for example working with students to help them understand the consequences of publishing defamatory material. In the tiny number of cases where an academic has threatened legal action, it has been after they’ve exhausted everything else. I take it you don’t think that women should be relentlessly and indefinitely targeted for doing their jobs. Or maybe you do.

      Anti-trans activism – if by that you mean supporting or promoting harassment and discrimination against trans-identifying people – is of course something we all oppose. But I don’t think that’s what you mean the way you’ve used it here. You appear to mean academic work (research, teaching and public engagement) that is critical of gender-identity theory. Gender-identity theory – the belief that sex is no longer relevant or at least is superseded by gender identity – is relatively new, is far from a settled matter in science and society, has profound consequences for law and policy, and as such is open to critique in universities. You appear to believe that critique of gender-identity theory is anti-trans activism. It’s not. Critique of gender-identity theory puts no-one at risk and poses no threat to anyone’s safety or security. People having and discussing ideas isn’t harmful: the use of knee-jerk references to unsubstantiated and nameless harms in order to attempt to proscribe what can be said and thought in a university is antithetical to academic freedom. It’s also deeply irresponsible for staff members to suggest to students that they are, and should be, made vulnerable by the discussion of ideas with which they do not agree.

      As to a threat to anyone’s academic freedom to challenge what you characterise as “outdated and oversimplified attitudes towards biology, sex and gender”, I take it you mean freedom to pursue avenues linked to queer theory, and in support of gender-identity theory. This has never been put at risk. There are entire courses devoted to these theories, and in some parts of the university they’re more-or-less unassailable. In the year leading up to lockdown, I counted 12 public engagement events platforming gender-identity theory uncritically, in a range of fields. At the start of 2020, after we’d had to postpone the seminar in this blog post, Staff Pride Network ran its own seminar on schools, grounded in gender-identity theory as an undisputed truth. None of these events were protested. They never are. I’d be very interested to see any evidence you have of proponents of gender-identity theory having their academic freedom in any way curtailed.

  7. RN says:

    Fixed it for you!

    I do actually agree that “the lifeblood of universities is evidence-based discussion and the civilised, robust exchange of ideas”. However, I disagree that transphobia can be classed as either civil or robust when all I have seen from AFAF and those who support them has been baseless and cruel attacks on the rights and privacy of others (typically marginalised women and queer people). Kicking up a fuss over ‘free speech’ is a blatant misappropriation of the term, fuelling the persecution complexes of a vocal minority who should never be allowed to hold positions of authority over the trans students that have the misfortune of being taught by them.

    TERFs are not welcome at Edinburgh University.

    1. sbenjami says:

      Thank you for this clear illustration of the hyperbolic, baseless accusations directed at anyone who suggests that gender-identity ideology should be critically examined rather than uncritically accepted as unassailable truth at a university. You’ve exemplified the problem for us. Academics who don’t fall into line face misogynist slurs such as the one you’ve used, and calls for workplace discrimination against them – because saying that an academic “should never be allowed to hold positions of authority” is tantamount to saying that person should be barred from the workplace roles that will secure them a contract and/or promotion, and/or continued employment (depending on their career stage). You don’t appear to understand the nature of academic freedom: a starting point, if you’re interested in becoming better informed, would be the posts by Neil Thin and Jonathan Hearn on this blog.

  8. Alka Sehgal Cuthbert says:

    Critiquing any belief system, or knowledge claims (i.e. intellectual discursive act) is a qualitatively different thing to advocating a social practice denying rights to a particular group (political activism). If you can’t tell the difference I wonder if you should be at university. I disagree deeply with those who think abortion is evil, although I can see why some with deeply held religious beliefs hold that view, but I don’t therefore think their rights should be limited so their views are removed from any academic or public discussion.

  9. Kathleen Lowrey says:

    I hope this seminar is finally able to take place. What is very obvious is that trans activists use the totalitarian tactics they do because they have been so well rewarded up to now: they have worked, again and again.

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