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.