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Kathleen Stock: row intensifies as union and university clash

Image: The Voice of Hassocks [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons

UCU branch calls for transphobia investigation as University of Sussex issues defence of academic freedom

The University of Sussex branch of the University College Union has called on the leadership of the Brighton-based institution to “take a clear and strong stance against transphobia at Sussex”, arguing that this was “inexcusably absent” from a statement made by vice-chancellor Adam Tickell last week.

Meanwhile, more than 150 academics have expressed their support for the university and Tickell’s response to an ongoing campaign against philosophy professor Kathleen Stock. A group of student protestors are calling for Stock to be sacked for her views on sex and gender, although Stock has denied being transphobic.

In an email circulated on social media on 12 October, the Sussex branch of the University and College Union called on the management at the university to “uphold the institution’s stated values by ensuring the dignity and respect of trans and non-binary staff and students”, after Tickell condemned the protestors. 

In the 7 October statement in question, Tickell said the university “cannot and will not tolerate threats to cherished academic freedoms and will take any action necessary to protect the rights of our community”.

The email from the UCU branch came after Stock told The Times newspaper that she had been told she should stay off campus for her own safety, and that she feared for her future in academia. Sharing the letter on Twitter, Stock wrote: “My former union branch has just effectively ended my career at Sussex University.”

Responding to the letter, a spokesperson for the University of Sussex said the institution had “acted—and will continue to act—firmly and promptly to tackle bullying and harassment, to defend the fundamental principle of academic freedom, to support our community and continue to progress our work on equality, diversity and inclusion”.

“We care deeply about getting this balance right,” the spokesperson said. “There are a range of very strong views and opinions held across the university on a whole variety of issues and topics, including how we support our trans and non-binary community, particularly at this time.”

They added that David Ruebain, the university’s new pro-vice-chancellor for culture, quality and inclusion, would, in the coming weeks, be convening members of the Sussex university community to “talk about what is happening at the moment and to look at the way forward”.

‘We oppose all forms of bullying’

In the letter, the union stressed that it “[does] not endorse the call for any worker to be summarily sacked, and we oppose all forms of bullying, harassment and intimidation of staff and students”.

But it called for an “urgent investigation into the ways in which institutional transphobia operates at our university and diminishes the democratic rights and freedoms of some of its most vulnerable members”.

A spokesperson for the UCU said that the union supported the Sussex branch’s statement, which it said “makes clear its opposition to the harassment and bullying of staff and students”, adding that the UCU “is not calling for any staff to be dismissed from their post”.

“The [Sussex UCU] statement…reflects union policy with regards to trans inclusion,” the spokesperson continued. “UCU is a proud and unequivocal supporter of trans rights and echoes the calls from UCU Sussex branch for the university to match its strong stance on academic freedom with an equally strong stance on trans inclusion.”

The spokesperson claimed that some members of UCU Sussex branch executives had received “personal threats” since the letter was sent, including “the identification and publishing of [their] contact details”. 

Letter of support

Meanwhile, more than 150 academics have now signed an open letter in support of the University of Sussex’s response to the campaign against Stock, saying that the institution is acting to protect academic freedom.

“While not all of us agree with professor Stock’s views, we are convinced of the importance of making space within universities and within public life for respectful debate and discussion, particularly in relation to pressing issues of public policy,” the letter states. “We are therefore heartened to hear Sussex’s vice-chancellor speaking out in support of professor Stock’s academic freedom, and in favour of keeping open debate and discussion of this important, though sensitive, issue.” 

John Collins, a professor of philosophy at the University of East Anglia and one of the organisers of the open letter, told Research Professional News he would “like to see universities generally come out much, much more strongly” in defence of academics when academic freedom is under threat—but added that he was “pleasantly surprised by the clarity of the response” from Tickell.

In a statement on 10 October, higher and further education minister Michelle Donelan said the attacks on Stock were “unacceptable” and promised that the upcoming free speech bill would “ensure universities continue to do more to not only protect academic freedom but also promote it and end the culture where some believe they can threaten, intimidate and harass those with whom they disagree to silence them”.