Women’s Rights and Academic Freedom

According to the tenets of gender identity ideology, every individual has an inner gendered self which manifests as gender identity (a sense of maleness or femaleness) – and this gender identity is the only accurate way of categorising an individual as a man, a woman, both or neither. Under this ideology, biological sex is reduced to a social construction and only gender identity is real. Such a way of thinking clearly has major implications for women’s rights which have been won on the basis of sex, and for the education and safeguarding of children.

You might think that universities are the very places where ideologies with far-reaching consequences can be critically examined, where arguments and counter-arguments based on evidence can be advanced, and where respectful discussion about ways forward in fields like law, criminal justice, health, education and social work can take place. But you would be wrong.

In 2019 the University of Edinburgh – one of the UK’s largest and most prestigious universities – hosted at least 10 public events platforming speakers and subjects that uncritically accept and promote gender identity ideology. One of those events was a two-day conference sponsored and financed by the University. As far as we know, none of these public events was subjected to any protest, or any calls for no-platforming. By contrast, there was just one public event, a 90-minute panel discussion on women’s sex-based rights, which critically explored the consequences of gender identity ideology.

That event was heavily protested. Ahead of the event, the Edinburgh University Student Association were among the individuals and groups who went online to make unfounded allegations, insult the speakers and organisers, and make inflammatory and hyperbolic claims, in the attempt to force the university to cancel the event. But when the University’s Staff Pride Network Committee publicised the counter-rally in a blog post dripping with false claims and de-humanising language against the event, University management belatedly stepped in, requiring the committee to remove or amend the post. The committee resigned en masse in protest at this curtailment of their rights to try to disrupt University business by whipping up hostility. The discussion went ahead amid very tight security arrangements, and there was an attempted assault on one of the speakers as she left campus.

Fast forward a few months, and a second event, a research seminar on gender diversity in schools, was advertised for early December. By now, the Staff Pride Network Committee had been enticed back into post, presumably having been promised by University management that they could have their own way in future. We understand that they were invited to provide a speaker for the event (which they declined), and subsequently all details of the seminar, including the booking link, were shared with them ahead of time. They were primed and ready with emails and a blog post as soon as the publicity for the seminar went live. The blog post, predictably, was full of unfounded allegations, distortions and hyperbole. This time there was no decisive action from University management. Instead, the event was ‘postponed’ in the face of intimidation, and there is no sign of its being re-scheduled. The organiser, Dr Shereen Benjamin, told the press that “We need universities to establish and maintain the boundaries of acceptable protest from within their communities, and to intervene quickly and decisively if there are any attempts at intimidation”. There is no sign of that from University of Edinburgh management. Five weeks after the Staff Pride Network Committee blog was posted, minor changes were made. Hardly the actions of a management determined to uphold academic freedom.

Last week we wrote to managers at the University of Edinburgh to ask what steps had been taken to allow the seminar to be re-scheduled. We haven’t heard from them. Today we have written again, asking the following questions:

1) Is the research seminar on schools and gender diversity postponed or cancelled? If postponed, when is it likely to be re-scheduled? If cancelled, what are the reasons this event cannot be adequately supported by the University of Edinburgh?

2) What has been done in the past two months to enable the seminar to be re-scheduled? Specifically, what measures have already been taken, and what still remain to be taken, to “establish and maintain the boundaries of acceptable protest” from within your staff and student community?

3) Do you agree with Jonathan MacBride of your Staff Pride Network, that the event would be “upsetting and hurtful for anyone who is trans or an ally to the trans community”? If you agree, please unpack for us what you think the upset and hurt consists of.

4) Do you agree with Jonathan MacBride of your Staff Pride Network that the speakers at the event would engage in “hateful speech”? If so, on what basis do you agree? According to what criteria do you consider their speech hateful?

5) If you do not agree in full with Jonathan MacBride on points 3 and 4, are you prepared to say so publicly? If not, why not?

6) What is your response to the statement by Colin Riordan, Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University, who is quoted as saying “if we don’t have the debate how will we ever resolve it?” Are you prepared to make a similar statement in public?

7) Notwithstanding minor changes shortly before the holidays, the Staff Pride Network blog contains damaging assertions and distortions. Are further changes pending?

8) The Staff Pride Network blog says they are planning an event that will “include speakers who affirm trans people’s existence”. We would like to know how you understand this emotive phrase. Please would you explain what you think it means, and why you consider it acceptable for them to imply that others do not?

9) The Staff Pride Network blog refers to another event in the early stages of planning. It says they will continue to organise unbiased events. Do you consider their events organised to date to be unbiased? We understand they are organising a conference in February, sponsored by the University, and that the speakers include a representative of Scottish Trans Alliance. What steps have been taken to ensure balance in this conference, and to ensure that the perspectives of those from the LGBT community who do not accept gender identity extremism are platformed?

If these questions cannot satisfactorily be answered, we will have to conclude that the only views on sex and gender identity that can be discussed at the University of Edinburgh are those that are endorsed by a small number of very insistent gender identity extremists. It looks to us as though the Staff Pride Network Committee are currently running rings around the very handsomely-paid management of the University, and managers are failing to uphold their responsibilities to safeguard academic freedom as recently clarified by the EHRC and contextualised in this blog post by three University of Edinburgh academics.

We call on University Principal Professor Peter Mathieson, University Secretary Ms Sarah Smith, University Deputy Secretary Mr Gavin Douglas and University Lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Professor Sarah Cunningham-Burley to demonstrate to us that we would be wrong to draw such a conclusion. We hope to receive satisfactory answers to our emails, and we hope to see the University of Edinburgh playing its role in public discussion of this very important social issue.

ETA: 04 Feb 2020 – a follow up blog is now available here.