We are an ad hoc group of people involved in the University College Union (UCU) who, now or in the past, have served in elected national or local branch positions. We are very concerned at the abject failure of our union to recognise that the key and pressing issue arising from the treatment of Kathleen Stock at Sussex University is that of her, and our, academic freedom. Through the brief statements below we want to show our solidarity with Kathleen Stock. We also hope to promote a discussion amongst union activists, the wider membership and others too about the importance of affirming academic freedom as a central value underpinning both our role as academics and the purpose of the University.
Whether you agree, disagree or are unsure, please share these arguments within your branch committee, membership and beyond for discussion. If you are a UCU activist or committee member, past or present, and would like to add your own statement in support of Stock and academic freedom, please e-mail us through the ‘Contact AFAF’ link (About AFAF).
Our statements: Why the University College Union should defend Kathleen Stock and affirm academic freedom.
I have been very disappointed that Sussex UCU, national UCU, and Sussex Students’ Union have all failed to make a clear statement opposing the express demand made by some students at Sussex University for the dismissal of Professor Kathleen Stock.
She faces a concerted assault on her academic freedom and freedom of speech. It is elementary and it is fundamental for trade unionists to stand up and defend these values.
I defend the right of students and others to demand the dismissal from their employment of people they disagree with. And I defend the right and duty of trade unionists and others to condemn such demands and to oppose them vigorously. The UCU and far too many academics have failed to do so.
Fortunately, others have spoken out. The Vice Chancellor at Sussex has defended academic freedom. And over 400 philosophy and law academics have signed ‘open letters’ supporting Sussex University in taking this stance. These are encouraging signs that people are tiring of the feverish intolerance of our times.
There is a related issue here. We should take note that employers in universities (and other public and private corporate institutions) have been happy to assume ever-increasing power to diminish the freedom of employees to express their views.
When trade unionists fail to oppose demands that employers should dismiss employees they confer further authority and legitimacy on management to discipline and regulate their staff. At a time when university employers are undermining pay, pensions, contracts and conditions of work the UCU should be busy opposing, not empowering, the employer.
John Fitzpatrick, Emeritus Professor of Law, University of Kent. Former UCU (University of Kent branch) workplace representative, branch executive member and chair of the branch for many years.
The UK government likes to paint the erosion of academic freedom as a culture war – ‘woke’ identitarian students and academics laying down the law about what can and can’t be thought and said in universities. UCU denies a cultural clampdown, pointing out that rampant casualisation means fewer and fewer academics have the right to pursue whatever lines of enquiry they see fit without risk of losing their jobs. This, says UCU, is the real threat to academic freedom.
In reality, academic freedom is threatened both by a censorious culture and by the corporatisation of the sector. UCU is right to point out that precariously-employed academics aren’t able to take intellectual risks. But the union’s determined denial of the suppression of research, teaching and public engagement on sex and gender identity in the face of mounting evidence of the harassment of feminist academics, could not be more wrong.
A trade union worthy of the name would have insisted that university managers step up to the plate and defend feminist academics against the smears, slurs and monstering meted out to those who argue that biological sex matters in law and policy. The perverse decision at UCU’s 2019 conference not to defend its own members has contributed to a hostile environment for feminists on campus: in high-profile incidents, academics have been targeted and no-platformed, while beneath the surface a wave of self-censorship means that a contested and unevidenced ideological position on sex and gender identity is taught and promoted by universities, and by UCU, as dogma and unassailable truth. When an ideology turns into an unchallengeable orthodoxy on university campuses, something very disturbing is happening.
Unsurprisingly, the Conservatives have stepped into the space vacated by UCU. They have claimed the moral high ground on academic freedom and used it to promote their own agenda. But increased regulation in the hands of a government that is highly selective about what topics it wants discussed freely will not be in the long-term interests of the university workforce, or of higher education. What we need is a robust defence of academic freedom in the context of critique of the corporatisation of the university sector. The problems underlying the erosion of academic freedom are cultural and structural. UCU’s role should be to lead discussion and analysis and come up with genuinely progressive solutions.
Shereen Benjamin, former branch officer, UCU Edinburgh
Academic freedom has been under attack for years, from the pressures of marketisation, new public management and government interference. In 2017, research commissioned by UCU into academic freedom reported that the UK has the second worst protection in Europe, and that “UCU members report statistically significantly higher levels of systematic abuse of their academic freedom, across a wide array of measures, than their European counterparts”. UCU called on academic freedom to be protected.
Since then, we have seen an alarming rise in attacks on academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities. UCU’s response has been at best muted or worse, unhelpful. In particular, in the treatment of Professor Kathleen Stock and other feminist academics, UCU’s response has been deplorable, in some cases siding with those who would curtail academic freedom. This is dangerous territory for a trade union: to endorse, explicitly or implicitly, attacks on the conditions of employment of its members.
Freedom of expression is not an absolute, and there may be occasions where the avoidance of hate speech or incitement to violence takes priority over free speech. This is not the case with Professor Stock and other gender critical feminists. The defence of academic freedom must be the default position of a union representing academics and academic related workers. That includes protecting the right to express views with which others disagree and to “present controversial or unpopular points of view”, thus submitting these views to scrutiny.
UCU should be standing up for academic freedom for all university employees. In particular, with its past record of supporting women’s rights and challenging gender-based violence, UCU should be strenuously protecting feminist academics from attempts to silence them. The treatment of Professor Stock and other feminist academics is an attempt to intimidate advocates of women’s rights – rights that have won through the struggles of generations and remain under threat.
The careers and livelihoods (not to mention the physical safety) of many UCU members are under threat as a result of their academic work and dissemination of their scholarship, and others are self-censoring in order to avoid the vilification in which sections of UCU are colluding. Academic freedom provides a degree of protection from the lynch mob, and UCU must stand up for these protections.
Eurig Scandrett, Vice President, Queen Margaret University branch and UCU Scotland Executive member. Former Vice President UCU Scotland. Writing in a personal capacity.
Simply expressing the view that sex is binary and biological can earn the tag ‘terf’ or ‘transphobe’ from university activists. Arguing for what flows from this belief – the defence of (biological) sex based rights, and disagreement with the socialisation of children into the belief that a person can be born in the wrong body and that gender is ‘assigned’ at birth – leads to the charge of ‘erasing’ trans people, ‘fascism’ and more. Demands to censure gender critical views often follow. Express gender critical ideas publicly in a university, as Kathleen Stock has done, and you can expect the attention of intolerant cliques intent on silencing your view. Little wonder that many – staff and students – worry about expressing their view.
How do we find our way through this culture war as a trade union? When the rights claims and lived experience of different groups seem to be in tension, we can start by looking to shared principles that we have a common interest in upholding.
One such principle is civility, not as in etiquette or politeness, but referring to a willingness to ‘stay in the room’ and discuss with those with whom you strongly disagree. The second is tolerance. True tolerance does not imply passivity, but involves an acceptance that those who hold views quite different from your own have as much right to express them as you do to judge and argue against them. Academic freedom thrives in a tolerant environment in which we nurture civility. But tolerance and civility seem in short supply.
Our union, at national level and in some branches, has undermined civility and tolerance. UCU policies and pronouncements, often similar to those of some employers and Stonewall, prescribe a particular view of sex and gender, and proscribe the views of Stock and many others. For example a motion carried at the UCU 2020 interim conference resolves to : ‘dismantle the exclusivity of cis and hetero normativities in all UCU work’, and to ‘develop branch action plans challenging the use of academic freedom arguments against LGBT+ people’.
Counterposing the position of LGBT+ people to the principle of free speech runs counter to the historical struggles for greater freedom, including freedom of speech, that have featured in past struggles for lesbian and gay rights. It provides a rationale for the indifference to the attacks on academic freedom aimed at Kathleeen Stock, Jo Pheonix, and Rosa Freedman, as well as students such as Lisa Keogh and Raquel Rosario Sánchez. Academic freedom seems to count for little when you contravene UCU policy on transgenderism. There is a wider, commonplace intolerance in some UCU circles at local level too. For example, one branch faced vocal demands for an ‘investigation’ into ‘transphobia’ simply because their twitter account followed the gender critical LGB Alliance charity (along with Stonewall, Mermaids and other accounts critical of this charity).
Academic freedom is an individual right. The role of unions, and universities, should be to support that right, not to form committees and pass policies to limit it. Not only is it foundational to the role of a university, it is also, in the case of academics, intrinsic to the job. Petitioning to censor a speaker for gender critical views is not only an affront to free speech; it literally involves stopping someone doing their job. UCU’s role seems to be to legitimise these censorious actions through its policies and pronouncements, and to say nothing to defend staff whose academic freedom is challenged and work obstructed.
Those of us who value academic freedom should be clear – students and staff should be free to challenge Stock’s or anyone else’s view, passionately and vocally. We should be equally clear that harassment and demands to discipline, sack or no-platform are intolerant and authoritarian.
The only way to undercut the impulse to censure rather than challenge – a key feature of the culture wars – is to insist that sex and gender, and the relationship between them, is a legitimate field of enquiry and subject to academic freedom. This is not easy, but far preferable to the fragmentation of the public sphere into identity groups lacking any sense of a common world shaped by democratic debate.
In a university, we have an obligation to cultivate openness to new and challenging ideas. That can be difficult at times, but we owe it to all of our students. If not in a university, where can that take place? And who will back us up if we fall foul of censorious demands if not our trade union ?
Jim Butcher is a long-standing branch committee member at Canterbury Christ Church University
I am a proud trade unionist and have been variously a rep, a case worker and chair of my local branch of UCU. I am proud of the work we have been able to do to support and defend members of staff both individually and collectively, at local and national levels.
However, I am dismayed that UCU as a union has failed to defend academic freedom in defence of Professor Kathleen Stock. Instead, the union has taken issue with the content of Prof Stock’s research, undermining the very basis of academic freedom. Academic freedom is the commitment to free and open inquiry for both academics and students and is a foundational value of higher education. It involves the right of academics and students to engage in research and teaching regardless of their focus, within the framework of law. Without academic freedom, research cannot flourish, truth cannot be pursued, knowledge cannot be produced, and ideas cannot be honed. As John Milton put it: “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter”. Echoing this, JS Mill claimed, that silencing the expression of an opinion robs the human race, both now, and future generations. He continued: “If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error”.
Whether we agree with Prof Stock’s analysis is not the question here; rather, it is her ability to conduct her research and voice her views, all within the framework of the law. UCU should know and understand this, and stand up for her rights to do so.”
UCU committee member who holds / has held roles as branch rep, caseworker and treasurer.
Academic freedom in higher education continues to be undermined by government policy, undemocratic university corporate governance, research assessment, the grant system, student fees and the lack of academic tenure. Formally, UCU policy is to uphold free speech and academic freedom in higher education, but in recent years many academics and invited speakers have been denied a platform, academic conference events have been cancelled and many excellent academics have been vilified and harassed for their gender critical academic work and related beliefs. Such shameful campaigns to intimidate staff into silence and calls for employers to sack academics for holding “the wrong views” have been led by a small priesthood of ideological activists, who believe that only they are qualified to decide what can and cannot be legitimately discussed in universities and in society at large.
We have come to expect cowardice from university business administrations, who are now only concerned for their survival and the pursuit of money in the mistaken belief that “the student customer is always right”. But what of the unions? Shockingly, instead of defending academics and upholding the principle of academic freedom for all university staff, the UCU leadership has instead chosen to side with the bullies in a staggering betrayal of staff and union member interests. The failure of national UCU to publicly defend Kathleen Stock at Sussex University qualifies the commitment of the union to defend its members, consequently weakening and undermining the academic freedom and employment protections of all university staff and union members. The UCU leadership actions have brought the union into public disrepute and has led to the public resignation of many members days before a strike ballot.
If the UCU is unable or unwilling to defend staff employment rights and the academic freedom of university staff, then one might reasonably ask, what is the point of a union?
Toby Andrew, Imperial UCU branch Rep and committee member
“We do not endorse the call for any worker to be summarily sacked” says the Sussex UCU committee, but it calls for an “urgent investigation into the ways in which institutional transphobia operates at our university”. Perhaps, before we begin such an investigation, we might ask a number of questions:
Who alleges transphobia, other than a small minority of students? In what way is transphobia institutionalised? Who will be investigated? And what will the outcome be? Should the outcome result in sacking? Or merely censure?
It shames me to my core that in order to make a statement in support of a fellow worker like Kathleen Stock I have to do it anonymously, to avoid suffering the same fate that has befallen her. But it is a measure of the febrile environment which exists in society in general and in universities in particular. The Sussex UCU committee statement and the UCU national statement that supports it are both shocking and disingenuous. UCU is failing to do what a union is set up to do, defend its members interests and as an educational union, to defend their academic freedom.
Kathleen Stock has been threatened. She does not feel safe at work or at home. The police have advised her not to attend work and to install CCTV cameras in her home. And this is UCU’s response? Shocking.
I am a lifelong trade union member. In UCU, I have held local, regional and national officer posts for over 11 years.
As a member of UCU for over 20 years, I have never been so disappointed in its response to an issue which has become a national concern. It is not often that an issue such as this reaches the level of a national debate, and UCU’s published stance is embarrassing. It makes me ashamed to be a member and a representative.
I make this statement in support of Kathleen Stock as I believe that the union’s response does not represent all of its members. It is not even clear that it represents the views of the majority of UCU members.
A trade union should look to defend the ability of staff to speak their minds and write about their views. As educators of young adults we must be able to challenge, discuss and offer different opinions. This is the core of education. It’s not abuse, harassment or insulting. It is education.
UCU Rep, FE College, A-Level and Access Tutor
UCU has a record on Academic Freedom which is chequered, at best. It supports freedom for those it agrees with, but it is careless about the academic freedom of many of those it does not, from gender critical feminists to Israeli academics. In behaving like this, it fails to represent a big majority of its members, who do not take such a partial, ideological view. It thereby lays those same members open to attack. On this issue – central for a union that aspires to represent academics in the UK – UCU is plainly inconsistent and partial. Governments don’t bother to listen to such a discredited voice, and so members are under increased threat.
On the NEC, in 2007-8, elected by the pre ’92 institutions, I tried to represent members who valued academic freedom, and argued against a discriminatory boycott. But the unrepresentative and factional nature of that body was quickly apparent then. If anything, matters have got worse. Now union branches condemn dissenting academics like Kathleen Stock – outrageously – for ‘weaponizing employment law’ and the General Secretary takes to Twitter to conducts personal feuds with members who disagree with her.
Though there are many activists and staff who understand basic principles of academic trade unionism, the leadership at national, and often local, level does not.
UCU must represent its members and take an unequivocal, consistent, and steadfast position in defence of academic freedom. That means, right now, UCU should stand in defence of the academic rights of Kathleen Stock.
Jon Pike, Open University UCU, UCU NEC 2007-8 (directly elected pre ’92), Open University Gender Critical Research Network (personal capacity)
I have been concerned for some time about the inability of the union to see the significance of academic freedom, and freedom of thought and speech. If it was not for a sense of loyalty to my local colleagues, I would have left the UCU long ago as they appear to be a barrier to academic freedom as demonstrated in the appalling approach they have taken to Kathleen Stock. Lecturers need an alternative union or professional body to form so that the basic defence of academics and indeed academia can begin anew.
Stuart Waiton, Abertay University, former UCU branch committee member
It is important that UCU members show solidarity with Professor Kathleen Stock and condemn the harassment she has endured. It is not surprising that there has not been clear condemnation of the attacks on Professor Stock and a clear defence of her right to freedom of speech and academic freedom by the leaders of UCU.
UCU have always been confused about who has academic freedom. It is not surprising that they commissioned a report to ‘better define what academic freedom means and to ensure it is better protected.’ In that report only 42% of UK academics who responded felt they had ‘an adequate working knowledge of academic freedom’ and 81% wanted more information on the concept of academic freedom.
They are partly responsible for the lack of clarity their members, and others, have. They only defend the freedom of speech and academic freedom of academics whose views they agree with. This gives them spurious credibility as defenders of freedom of speech and academic freedom. But they do not understand academic freedom. The clue to understanding is in the word ‘freedom.’ Both free speech and academic freedom must be free and unrestricted. To truly defend academic freedom means that you must defend the freedom of speech and academic freedom of those you disagree with. Defending their freedom does not imply you agree with anyone’s views.
UCU needs to become a defender of everyone’s free speech and academic freedom, or they will continue to fail to support their members and colleagues and lose members. This failure in the case of Professor Stock has come to haunt the union as it calls for a vote for industrial action. Many feminists and other are both metaphorically, and literally, burning their ballot papers. This is a wake-up call for UCU. Time to stand up for free speech and academic freedom.
Dennis Hayes, First (joint) president of UCU, and past-Chair University of Derby UCU Branch.
Academic freedom is a vital part of academic work; without the freedom to pursue far-ranging research, investigation, teaching and discussion, academic work itself would be limited, compromised and ultimately meaningless. Academic freedom also presupposes the possibility of profound and intense agreement, sometimes over fundamental questions and deeply held convictions. Without institutionalised protection for such profound disagreement, academic work itself is meaningless. If UCU is to defend academia as a profession, it must defend the academic freedom of all its members, even when they disagree amongst themselves. Without offering such protections, UCU risks simply becoming another branch of university management.
Philip Cunliffe, UCU member, ex vice president, University of Kent UCU branch (2019-2020)
I have been thinking about how I would approach the issues surrounding the Sussex University Professor Kathleen Stock.
I understand that she is not a member of the University College Union (UCU) and so she wouldn’t get representation from us if she was seeking to pursue a grievance, or if the University was seeking to discipline her.
But the issues go much further than simply being accompanied to a meeting with management by a representative of a trade union. When even a government minister starts commenting about an issue at your University, you cannot remain silent. Your members expect you to communicate something to them, offering some thought and direction. Although the local branch of UCU did do that, they largely side-stepped the most important issue that they needed to address: what do they think of the attack on a member of staff by a group (supposedly consisting largely/exclusively of students) that are calling for her to be sacked? And what does the union think about the defence of that member of staff by the senior management, as expressed through the statement by the Vice Chancellor?
Instead of directly addressing these questions and tackling the most important issues, the union branch statement sided with the students protesting about a member of staff. They concentrated their comments on the issues raised by the students about gender and trans rights, and the (alleged) neglect of these issues by the University.
While perhaps not endorsing all of the methods being used, the union was largely supportive of what the students were saying. UCU did not say that Stock should lose her job. But they did say they supported the protests, and reserved their “strongest support” for the students’ union.
They did not directly defend the individual in the staff group which they are supposed to represent, and who is central to this whole case. It was as if she did not exist at all. Instead, they carefully chose words which obfuscate the point about Stock’s employment: ‘We do not endorse the call for any worker to be summarily sacked’, they said. The statement also said that they disagreed with ‘employment rights’ being ‘instrumentalised’ in this context. This last set of words is suggests that if students disagree with you and want you sacked for your beliefs, you should not be relying on the hard won rights of employees or the responsibilities of employers which safeguard you and offer certain protections under employment law.
This is a very strange statement for a trade union to be making. When representing someone in a potential dismissal situation, a trade union should do everything it can to ensure that the member gets a fair hearing and is able to utilise every avenue open to them.
Kathleen Stock stated that UCU had ‘effectively ended (her) career at Sussex University’ through their statement. Strong words, but understandable frustration. Whether she is right remains to be seen, but it is clear that the union did not come down firmly on the side of a member of staff doing her job and exercising the academic freedom that is intrinsic to that job. This is a fairly basic thing for any trade union to do, regardless of whether any individual is a member.
How would I have approached this issue? If I had been writing a statement to union members – or contributing to it with other union representatives – I would make sure that it did a number of things:
Firstly, that it welcomed the employer defending staff against (for all intents and purposes) an external group who should have no say on the employment of staff in the organisation – we are a staff union, not a students’ union. It’s not often that senior management publicly defend their staff if they are subject to criticism, so I would make a definite point of applauding that.
Secondly, the statement should comment, negatively, on the actions of those who are harassing a member of staff through posters, protests and calling for her to lose her job. Perhaps it should point out that while there is a right to protest, we as a trade union stand squarely with the staff member: her academic freedom, her employment rights and her right to do her job free from harassment.
Thirdly, the statement should use the opportunity to talk about the importance of solidarity with colleagues, collectively dealing with issues in a collegiate fashion, but emphasising the importance of actually joining the union and encouraging others to do the same. Stating that it is only union members that get direct and individual representation would also be a key message that I would want to get across. However, following the national and Sussex branch UCU statements, ‘gender critical’ colleagues will now understandably wonder whether the union is really for them.
You could argue that a statement based around those three things side-steps the issue of trans rights and the debate around gender, sex and identity. That is true. But the first (and most important thing) that is at stake here is that a member of staff is under attack, being harassed, is being advised by the police about what precautions and protections she should take, and has a number of people calling for her to be sacked.
The first thing a trade union needs to do is to defend the staff and to defend jobs – and an ability to undertake that job (a job that depends upon academic freedom) without serious harassment. The political debate is important, but it is only by successfully doing the first, that you can begin to have wider political discussions. Trade unions that neglect this, cannot really call themselves trade unions. And they certainly cannot hope to successfully defend staff against all that is happening in their institution and bring staff together into a cohesive unit.
If they cannot stand up for someone who is subject to a sustained and personal campaign designed to censure her, then at what point will the union stand up and defend any individual with gender critical views, or indeed other opinions frowned upon by the UCU hierarchy ? Unions always need to look around for support and should seek to be part of the community in which they operate. At a University, that would include students, as well as other groups and other trade unions. But their first undertaking should be an internal representation of the staff group/s that they seek to represent. That group comprises heterodox views. That is the missing feature in this case, which is why some trade unionists have been baffled by the stance being taken by UCU and the statements that they have released.
I have almost 20 years of experience representing UCU (and one of its predecessor unions) at national, regional and local level, including leading significant industrial disputes. In order to give my honest opinion on this case, I have asked to remain anonymous.
I am writing in support of both Kathleen Stock, and freedom of speech.
I put forward this statement anonymously to protect my current employment. I think the fact that I and so many others feel scared to speak out, due to potential repercussions, about the way in which a fellow academic has been treated, should be worrisome for UCU.
I hold no strong, or fixed position on gender studies or the issues of contention which have given rise to the attacks on Kathleen. As an academic I do however have a strong belief that views are contrary to my own should be aired, and if appropriate should also be challenged. It would be naïve of myself, or anyone else, and counter to any notion of critical thinking, to believe that the views I hold should be the views which are given to me.
If an organisation or union seeks to support a position which led to death threats and the advisement of bodyguards then it has lost the argument. I call on UCU to defend academic freedom and the right to free speech for our members.
I ask that UCU give a statement which unequivocally supports the right to academic freedom in relation to issues of contention, whilst also reiterating its support for trans rights. These two positions are not contrary. Freedom of speech, without the threat of losing one’s job or standard of living, is the cornerstone to any free society.
I have formerly held the position of both UCU Branch Chair and Secretary for a HE institution of the North West of England. I am a relatively prominent left-wing activist in the North and would consider myself politically, as a socialist
The University of Sussex has vigorously and unequivocally defended Professor Kathleen Stock’s right to exercise her academic freedom and lawful freedom of speech, as do I, as these freedoms apply to and benefit us all whatever our area of research.
The University of Sussex stated “A vital part of a healthy University community is the ability to discuss, debate and respectfully disagree with a wide range of views and beliefs. In law those characteristics that are protected are: age, disability, gender reassignment, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation, marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity. This is all the more important when the rights of people to hold the beliefs in question are protected by law, as is the case for those with gender-critical views, which is a protected philosophical belief.”
UCU cannot and should not tolerate any discrimination based on protected characteristics, including sex and philosophical belief. Like Sussex, it should take appropriate action if this happens, and support the academic freedom of all of the staff it represents.
Anonymous UCU branch executive member