Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Written evidence submitted by Professor Kathleen Stock OBE, Philosophy, University of Sussex (HEFSB11)

Written evidence on the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill

Executive summary

· Multiple pieces of evidence suggest a culture of fear and self-censorship in UK Universities arounds certain issues of pressing social importance, such as those involving sex and gender identity. This culture is partly generated by academic and students witnessing the unusually hostile treatment of other academics for unorthodox views; in conjunction with a systematic failure of University management to publicly support their academics’ freedom of thought in light of this hostility.

· To date, Universities have mostly denied the problem, or dealt with it inadequately, partly because they seem unaware of the tensions involved, and partly because they are apparently frightened of student backlash and its impact on student recruitment.

· Indeed, in order to give themselves a competitive edge in student recruitment, Universities have involved activist groups in policy-making and governance, in ways also detrimental to academic freedom.

· The possibilities afforded by social media for organising publicly against particular academics at great speed further exacerbates the problem.

· In light of these and other relatively new factors, a profound cultural change is needed to preserve academic freedom as a good in Universities. Since market forces apparently mean that Universities cannot self-regulate in this area, there should be meaningful legislation to achieve this. Hence I’m broadly in favour of the Bill.

My evidence

1. Introduction. I’m a ‘gender-critical’ Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sussex (which means, roughly, that I emphasise the reality of biological sex and human sexual dimorphism, its systematic social effects, and problems I perceive with trying to replace talk of biological sex with talk of inner ‘gender identity’). For the past three years, I have been writing for both public and academic audiences on matters of controversy in the area of sex, gender, and feminism: specifically, about transactivist political demands to recognise and prioritise gender identity, and what I view as the adverse relation of those demands to the welfare of women, children, and gay people. I have recently published a well-reviewed book on the subject, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism (Fleet). The book draws on my recently gained academic expertise in the area of sex, gender, and sexual orientation, but also from my extensive prior engagement with the philosophy of fiction, which is also pertinent to the gender identity debate. Because of my stated views, I have been subject to a range of attempts to harass, defame, and censor me, by academics and students within my own and other UK Universities; and I have collected the testimonies of other academics subject to similar experiences within their respective institutions.

My major concern with respect to such events is the wider chilling effect they have on academic freedom in relation to discussion of biological sex and its impacts. However, in light of my experiences, I believe I also have an informed perspective on the wider ramifications for academic freedom of a range of relevant factors, including but not limited to: attempts of Universities to attract students in face of increasingly intense competition for recruitment; the effects of student fees on perceptions of students as customers; the relatively new availability of social media as a tool to harass, defame, and organise against non-conformist thinkers; an increased emphasis on Equality, Diversity and Inclusion by University managers, understood very narrowly and often in terms dictated by bodies with no interest in academic freedom as a goal; and the soliciting of activist organisations in University policy-making. I will elaborate upon some of these points below.

2. My own experience of adverse professional effects, due to my beliefs, include:

· Student harassment (e.g. deputations to senior management to attempt to prevent me teaching in certain areas; a vexatious student complaint investigated over several months; the organisation of a rival and defamatory public talk, to coincide with an academic talk of mine; defamation in student newspapers; defacement of my office door; student protests on campus about my ‘transphobia’; defamation and personal threat on social media; and student petitions claiming I am ‘transphobic’, sent to University management).

· Harassment and defamation by academic colleagues, either at my University or at others (e.g. organised attempts to use hate crime legislation to have me sacked, as reported in The Times 8/9/2018; defamation on social media describing me as a ‘bigot’ and a ‘danger’ to trans students; a defamatory online petition signed by 600 colleagues, many of whom were fellow philosophy lecturers).

· Repeated pressure on colleagues at my institution or within my academic discipline, by other colleagues, to exhibit signs of "trans solidarity" in order to mitigate the supposedly harmful aspects of my writing and thought, thereby reinforcing the idea my ideas are a threat to trans well-being (e.g. putting trans flags on office doors, signing of petitions, pressure to put ‘preferred pronouns’ indicating gender identity in email signatures).

· Loss of publication (a volume by Oxford University Press was dropped, partly on the basis that an interview with me was to appear in it).

· Deplatforming or radical changes to the format of invited speaking events involving me, after complaints.

· Special security measures at my workplace.

· The need for institutions hosting me as a guest speaker to make special security provision.

3. Throughout this, public support from University managers has been rare, and my contact with some managers has suggested that they are - at best - ambivalent about whether my academic freedom should be supported, partly for structural reasons I will suggest later. In their ambivalence, I take them to be in line with sector norms. It has left me without much visible institutional support, and further encouraged my detractors.

4. It is my belief that the most damaging aspect of the treatment I’ve received is the chilling example it sets to other academics and students who also wish to reject intellectual orthodoxy in some area – most obviously, in the areas connected to sex and gender, but also more widely. This is to the detriment of knowledge and understanding in these areas, since ideas and theories are not being discussed in anything like the normal way, or subject to rigorous critique. Some ideas are deemed uncriticisable; others may not be discussed at all for fear of offense.

5. I have received many private communications from gender-critical academics and students, in my own and other institutions, expressing their fear about the repercussions of speaking honestly about their views. Most but not all of these are women; many of them are relatively junior or precariously employed. The writing and speaking I have done in recent years has put me in touch with many gender-critical academics and students in the UK who feel their academic freedom with respect to sex and gender is under pressure. I collected some anonymous testimonies in 2019 here; since then a special website (Gender Critical Academic Network, henceforth GCAN) has been set up to collate experiences.

6. In particular, testimonies from GCAN describe the following:

· Several instances of the weaponization of University disciplinary complaints procedures against academics for their stated or implied gender-critical beliefs, sometimes followed by prolonged and distressing investigation and an apparent failure of management to notice that complaints are ideologically motivated.

· Widespread attempts by other academics, often more senior, to control more junior academics’ speech: for instance, PhD supervisors urging their students to omit words such as ‘female’ or ‘mother’ from work in which these words are relevant; discouragement of research on specifically female concerns such as menstruation, on the grounds it is ‘transphobic’; Heads of Department either formally investigating or informally chastising departmental members for expressing gender-critical beliefs on social media; bullying by colleagues to display ‘preferred pronouns’ on office door and in communications; academic appraisals being linked to perceived achievement of mandatory Equality objectives, including objectives around trans rights (narrowly and tendentiously conceived of in terms of assent to gender identity ideology).

· Making access to professional development contingent on ideological conformity: for instance, making the statement of your ‘preferred pronouns’ mandatory for enrolment on a mentoring scheme aimed at junior academics.

7. Further relevant events that I know of, through contact with the people concerned, include:

· Prolonged and apparently successful attempts by member of one University department to get a colleague sacked on the basis of her gender-critical writing.

· The cancellation of a 2019 gender-critical academic event on the grounds of ‘speaker safety’, yet to be rescheduled

· The assault of a feminist, Julie Bindel, on a university campus, when attending a gender-critical event as speaker.

· The necessity for a gender-critical historian at Oxford, Professor Selina Todd, to be accompanied by security at lectures.

· Several instances of academic editors and publishers requiring language changes in academic writing before publication: e.g. to avoid references to sex, ‘females’, ‘mothers’ (etc.) or to avoid mentioning that trans women are biologically male (etc.).

· The loss of an academic editorship for gender-critical beliefs.

· Rejections from academic journals by referees or editors for essays stating facts about biology in ways deemed offensive to trans people.

8. It should be noted that wherever such events take place in front of witnesses, the chilling effect amongst academics and students is increased. Evidence for this chilling effect, also reported on GCAN, includes:

· Deliberate failure of gender-critical academics to seek promotion or career advancement to avoid confrontation with management or colleagues.

· Decisions of gender-critical academics to leave academia.

· Gender-critical academics becoming risk-averse in teaching in order to avoiding controversial subjects.

· Widespread beliefs (whether or not they are true) that some speech acts about sex and gender are taboo.

· Beliefs that, when reviewing grant proposals that concern trans people, one cannot apply ordinary disciplinary norms (e.g. criticising a proposal for its methodology) for fear of being presented as a ‘transphobe’.

9. The effects seem most pernicious when it comes to junior and precariously employed academics. As noted in a 2017 report into academic freedom by the University and College Union (UCU), job security is rightly seen as an element of academic freedom, since a lack of it makes one more vulnerable to pressures from managers and colleagues, and disincentivises one from rocking the intellectual boat.

10. It is my impression that Universities, as well as many academics and administrators, have largely ignored the problem of the suppression of academic freedom around sex and gender, despite there being a lot of evidence publicly available. The repeated insistence that there is no real problem of academic freedom, and that no-platforming is a relative rarity, misses the fact that no-platforming and deplatforming are the small tip of a much bigger iceberg. There is a demonstrable culture of fear, which by its nature disincentivises people from talking publicly about the problem in their own names. This is a culture, moreover, that Universities are somewhat responsible for producing, either by negligent omission, or by the active involvement of activist organisations in University policy-making, or both.

11. The most prominent activist organisation involved in UK University life is Stonewall. Most UK Universities are Stonewall "Diversity Champions" and many compete for highly ranked placings in the annual "Workplace Equality Index" competition. Stonewall advises Universities in these schemes on matters pertaining to their interpretation of Equality Law; but more than this, they encourage Universities to go beyond the law, in ways they deem progressive, but which negatively affect academic freedom. For instance: Stonewall’s official definition of ‘transphobia’ is couched in a way that automatically includes gender-critical thought as ‘transphobic’. In documents associated with their various schemes, they tell Universities that gender-critical academic speakers ‘cause LGBT people to feel deeply unsafe’ (Stonewall, ‘Delivering LGBT-inclusive Education’). They describe accurately sexing trans people (which they call ‘misgendering’) as inevitably bullying and transphobic, no matter what the context. They encourage faculty and staff to report accurate sexing of trans people as ‘bullying’ or a ‘hate crime’ – again, no matter what the context. They also require that Universities develop dedicated trans policies for staff and students, approving of the inclusion of authoritarian clauses such as:

· ‘Think of people as being the gender that they self-identify as." (Leeds)

· ‘If a trans person informs a staff member that a word or phrasing is inappropriate or offensive, then that staff member should take their word for it, and adjust their phraseology accordingly’ (UCL)

· ‘Any materials within relevant courses and modules will positively represent trans people and trans lives. (Aberystwyth, Sussex)

· ‘Consider your reasons for asking questions about sex/gender in any survey or form, since such questions may be problematic for people with a trans identity’ (Oxford)

· ‘Transphobic propaganda, in the form of written materials, graffiti, music or speeches, will not be tolerated and will be a subject of investigation which may result in possible sanction.’ (UWE and many others).

12. In accepting such advice from Stonewall, Universities have shown little recognition of how these demands might impact on academic freedom. For instance, such policies are to the detriment of gender-critical academics’ ability to argue that sex is more important than inner gender identity in law and policy; to explore the complex issues of males in women’s prisons, refuges, hostels, and in sporting competition; to discuss the rise in females in gender identity clinics; and many other areas where clear and unambiguous communication about sex matters intellectually. Meanwhile, again following explicit Stonewall instruction, University managers and administrators are often seen to enthusiastically participate – in their guise as managers rather than as individuals – in Stonewall-sponsored events such as Trans Day of Remembrance, Trans Day of Visibility, International Day against Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia (to name but a few). They fly trans flags on campus, participate in lighting candle ceremonies, and display their ‘preferred pronouns’ in communications to their staff. Though perhaps well-intentioned, all of this compounds the message that gender-critical academics and students will not get a neutral hearing in any complaints processes, or other confrontation with management – which exacerbates the chilling effect, as well as encouraging vexatious complaints from critics.

13. In a recent independent review commissioned by the University of Essex and carried out by barrister Akua Reindorf, into the deplatforming of two gender-critical academics at Essex, Reindorf concluded (my bold): ‘The University should give careful and thorough consideration to the relative benefits and disbenefits of its relationship with Stonewall, bearing in mind the issues raised in this report. In particular, it should consider that this relationship appears to have given University members the impression that gender critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution; the potential effect of this on the University’s obligations to uphold freedom of expression; the effect on University members’ understanding of the values of the institution; and the effect on those members of the University who hold gender critical views ... If the University considers it appropriate to continue its relationship with Stonewall, it should devise a strategy for countering the drawbacks and potential illegalities described above."

14. Universities participate in Stonewall schemes, I believe, partly because it is a sector norm to do so, and because they want to be able to advertise the market-friendly branding which they believe it gives them to students. In other words, part of the background to recent losses of academic freedom concerns the expansion of a competitive market for students, and a desire by institutions to be seen to promote political views deemed attractive for recruitment (or at least, not to promote ones seen as unattractive). Since Stonewall is also influential in schools (again via its Diversity Champion Scheme), and has a strong influence on youth culture generally, this makes it harder for Universities to buck the trend.

15. Another dimension of the problem is the desire of University managers to create (the impression of) a warm and welcoming ‘community’ for students when they arrive, again promoted as a recruitment tool. As sociologist Cass Sunstein has pointed out in his book Conformity, there is an established correlation between an emphasis on community and cohesion within an institution, and the deterrent of nonconformist thinking there, since the two are perceived as in tension.

16. A further exacerbating factor in producing a chilling effect for academic freedom has been the introduction of student fees. Most notably, this has made students see themselves as customers, and Universities see them that way too. Hence there is greater deference to their expressed wishes (or at least, the expressed wishes of the most vocal of them, which is not always the same thing). In the aim of making universities more accountable to fee payers, students (and in particular, politically active students, since these are often the ones who volunteer for the roles) are increasingly brought into decision making, appointments, policy formation, and general governance. This makes it more likely that currently preferred political ideologies filter into University policy, to the detriment of academic freedom. Again, I see no evidence that Universities are keeping an eye on the effect of this on academic freedom in particular.

17. Another exacerbating and relatively new factor is the opportunities social media provides to students and faculty to participate in activities detrimental to academic freedom. These include: quick organisation and dissemination of petitions and open letters; organising on public Facebook groups against particular academics; defamation and harassment of academics by other academics and students on Twitter or in blogs; screenshotting context-free social media posts, or lines from articles or essays, in order to construct a narrative of ‘hate’ to sell to an employer or to colleagues; attempts to embarrass an academic’s employer or colleagues by association with that academic, tagging them in; and so on. Such events can be overwhelming for an isolated academic and are feared by many onlookers. By its very nature, social media also enables the acceleration of politicised social trends amongst users, such as placing preferred pronouns in biographies. Again, I see no real recognition from Universities that any of this is the case, nor that it might make the expression of unorthodox thoughts more vulnerable in a world where academics are increasingly encouraged to be online for ‘impact’-related reasons.

18. In light of all of the above, I largely welcome the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) bill. Though I am not a legal specialist, it seems to me that existing legislation in this area is minimal, vague, and not fit to meet the challenges outlined above. Some of what exists (e.g. in HERA) focuses upon institutional autonomy, not individual academic autonomy. These are not the same thing – indeed, as we have seen, they may be in tension with one another. What is needed is a cultural change in the University sector: away from self-censorship, managerial pursuit of what will least annoy students, and an apparently inability to publicly support academics facing moralised, irrational attacks from other academics and students; and towards civil disagreement, robust informed debate, and a general understanding of the importance of academic freedom for knowledge and understanding. Since, as I suggested above, Universities are positively disincentivised to produce this cultural change because of market forces, legislation looks like the only option. The proposed duty on Universities to ‘actively promote’ academic freedom is particularly welcome, since, I take it, done properly, it might acquaint students and faculty with both the value of academic freedom for wider society, and the responsibility of Universities and academics to promote it.

19. There is a trend, not just within Universities but in wider society, towards fear of self-expression, and capitulation to a few particularly vocal voices, no matter what the grounds of their critique. A cultural change towards the promotion of academic freedom in Universities - backed up by meaningful legislation that isn’t just a bureaucratic box-ticking exercise but actively promotes the value of academic freedom in a way people can readily understand - could be of great benefit to wider society as a whole.

6 September 2021


Prepared 16th September 2021