Women’s Rights and Academic Freedom – Part 2

On January 21st we published this blog post telling the sorry tale of how the University of Edinburgh is systematically promoting an uncritical acceptance of gender identity ideology, while allowing critical discussion of that ideology to be closed down. We included in that post nine questions we sent to University managers, some of which related to the postponed event on gender diversity in schools, and some of which related to the wider questions about academic freedom raised by the Guardian article on 14/01/20.

At the end of last week we received an answer from Gavin Douglas, Deputy Secretary of the University. His email, which would appear to be a circular one since we know others have received identical mails, answered none of the nine questions we’d asked. Nor did it indicate that university management have any interest in dealing with the problems documented in our last blog post.

We’ve also learned that the Staff Pride Network committee has been allowed to organise its own event on schools and gender diversity, planned for this Thursday. So here’s a thing. The Staff Pride Network has been allowed to use intimidation and sabotage to stop a research seminar on schools and gender diversity from going ahead because it didn’t like the speakers. Having refused an invitation to speak at that seminar, one of the committee’s criticisms was that the event was biased. Now the committee is running its own heavily biased event on the same subject.

How on earth is this possible? Who in the University thinks this is a good idea? No matter what you think about the topic of sex and gender, surely any manager can see that rewarding bullying seldom improves anything. And what price academic freedom? We can’t fathom why the University of Edinburgh hasn’t ensured the original research seminar can go ahead without disruption from the Staff Pride Network, before giving the go-ahead for the Staff Pride Network’s own event. Are we missing something?

In another twist, a graduate asked a question about academic freedom at the University’s General Council meeting last Saturday (at about 1:41:20). The answers are revealing. First up, Professor Peter Mathieson, the University Principal, admits to not knowing much about the substantive debate but suggests that the University may produce its own version of the Stone Report. This sounds like a great idea: the Stone Report is unequivocal in its support for academic freedom. Unfortunately, we understand that the possibility of the University aligning with it was first discussed more than a year ago. So is there really going to be any serious discussion of adopting these or similar principles and acting on them? Or was Professor Mathieson simply playing for time and prevaricating?

Ms Sarah Smith, the University Secretary, then gave her own response. She appears breathtakingly ill-informed about events on her own campus last year. She seems not to realise that there were at least 10 public events platforming extreme views on gender identity, or that these might have been in any way contentious. Does she think that because we don’t protest violently, all those events are fine? Then she claims that the discussion panel on women’s sex-based rights on June 5th “on the whole went off pretty smoothly”. So presumably she thinks that a campaign of harassment, abuse and intimidation, attacks on the reputations of the speakers and organisers, heightened security arrangements and a physical attack on one of the speakers as she left the campus, constitutes “pretty smoothly”. Wow. If that’s an event running smoothly we’d hate to see her idea of what a problematic event looks like. Finally she blames the organiser of the December seminar for postponing the event: she says the organiser felt unsafe so she postponed it, to the disappointment of University management. What was the context for that feeling of unsafety? As we said in our previous post, the Staff Pride Network were straight out of the blocks with their campaign of intimidation and sabotage. It would clearly have escalated to at least the levels of abuse and risk that the June event saw. But Sarah Smith doesn’t bother to say any of that. Our email to management asked what had been done to “establish and maintain the boundaries of acceptable protest” – this was the phrase used by the event organiser, Shereen Benjamin, in the Guardian article, and we understand it has been put to management several times since then. From the lack of an answer to our question, we gather that precisely nothing has been done, which is why the seminar hasn’t been re-instated.

Where does that leave us? This month sees two events run by the Staff Pride Network. There’s a day-long conference which features, amongst others, a speaker from Scottish Trans Alliance, as well as the schools event. No doubt more will follow. Meanwhile, the University appears to be doing nothing of any substance to enable any critical discussion to take place. We cannot believe that most members of the University approve.

Meanwhile, lots of our members were down in London this weekend, at the fabulous Women’s Liberation 50th Anniversary Conference. Our hosts were the University College London which appears to have no such qualms about upsetting its ‘trans community’. A member of senior management spoke from the stage during the first plenary session, welcoming participants, and confirming UCL’s support for the event. What would need to change at the University of Edinburgh to make it similarly welcoming for feminists discussing women’s rights? Some decisive management action to support academic freedom would probably be a good way to start.

We have sent the following to Gavin Douglas and the rest of the University of Edinburgh management. We hope we will get a better reply this time.

“Dear Gavin,

Thank you for this response. Unfortunately, it doesn’t answer any of the questions we asked.

Since we sent our original emails to you, we have become aware that the Staff Pride Network is running its own discussion panel event on “School LGBTQ+ Diversity”. We would therefore like to add a tenth question to our existing nine questions:

10) The Staff Pride Network Committee, having successfully forced the postponement of the Schools and Gender Diversity research seminar because they didn’t approve of the speakers, are now organising their own event on the subject. Why have you allowed this? Why did you not ensure the Schools and Gender Diversity research seminar could go ahead before allowing those who sabotaged it to hold their own event?

We find it very difficult to guess what your reasoning could possibly be, so we would appreciate an explanation. We would also appreciate answers to at least some of our earlier questions.

Kind regards…”