What an almighty relief it was to hear Adam Tickell, the Vice Chancellor of Sussex University on the Today Programme last week, defending his staff members’ “untrammelled right to say and believe what they think”. It is a depressing sign of the times that even this most basic defence of academic freedom feels unusual.
Tickell’s intervention may be too little, too late, but it should be a much needed wake-up call to his spineless colleagues. It follows a campaign of intimidation against Professor Kathleen Stock, a lecturer who has published widely on the philosophy of aesthetics, fiction and imagination. Yet it is her views on gender theory that have led horrifically to events which now involve the police. Stickers calling her a “transphobic s—” surfaced in her workplace. An Instagram account called ‘Anti Terf Sussex’ was set up, with the demand “Fire Kathleen Stock. Otherwise you’ll see us around.” Masked protesters lit flares, and flew banners reading “Stock out”. She has endured this kind of harassment for two years at least. Whatever your opinion on the trans debate, does anyone believe that a respected female academic should be treated this way?
Stock is just one of many under threat, yet numerous universities have apparently been cowed into silence. It is no coincidence that those targeted most tend to be women with ‘gender-critical’ views – who believe, along with most of the population, that sex is a biological reality. By refusing to kowtow to the idea that gender is simply a feeling that can be changed by self-declaration, they are smeared as “transphobes” and relentlessly bullied.
In Stock’s book Material Girls, she reiterates that trans people deserve to be safe and “visible throughout society without shame or stigma”, She makes a point of using students’ “preferred pronouns”, writing “I would never discriminate against any student for any aspect of their identity, including being trans”. (As a lesbian, Stock probably knows a fair bit about discrimination). She sees her role not to convince students of her own beliefs but to encourage open discussion – a view all academics ought to share.
Now this very attitude seems under threat. What is shocking about Stock’s case (and cases like it such as Selina Todd at Oxford University and Rosa Freeman at Reading) is their unions’ utter failure to defend them – and their colleagues’ complicity in denouncing them. No wonder Stock told me that lockdown had provided some relief from her overwhelmingly toxic working environment. Who, exactly, is being protected here? If the views of one woman make people in another building feel “unsafe” while that woman is visibly intimidated, then what does ‘safety’ mean?
The no-platforming, the disinviting, the sheer animosity towards anyone challenging the dominant narrative – all this is the antithesis to education. The government, recognising the threat, proposed the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. The Left branded it a cynical attempt to promote conservative thought.
It is not that simple. Surveys show that students of many political persuasions feel unable to voice their views. The combination of universities seeking to pacify students in a market where they are seen as “consumers” – along with ‘safe spaces’ and other ideas drawn from US campuses, have created an unreal world where no student may be disturbed by a view that bursts their bubble. Legislation is a blunt and unsatisfactory instrument. It is this “no debate” culture and the accompanying self-censorship that must change.
Closing down discussion in the name of “inclusion” produces nothing but silence and mediocre intellectual work. Universities have a moral duty to defend academic freedom and dissident thought or we end up with no freedom and no thought at all, held to ransom by unthinking thugs.