UCU Congress 2019 

This is a report from the mover and supporters of a recent motion on Academic freedom at the University & College Union ConferenceIt includes the text of the motion and amendment as well as speeches made in support of the motion. 

At UCU Higher Education Sector Conference on Sunday 28 May the following motion and amendments were debated in open session.  

Both amendments were carried before voting on the amended motion which was so close that tellers were required and the result declared 72 for, 80 against with 27 abstentions. 

HE32 (EP) Academic freedom to discuss sex and gender – University College London 

HESC notes: 

  1. UCU’s commitment to equality and academic freedom 
  1. that UCU members have much to contribute to public debate over definitions of ‘sex’, ‘gender’ and ‘gender identity’ 
  1. harassment has been directed at academics and activists. 

HESC believes: 

  1. that UCU members hold diverse views 
  1. members need not agree with the views of any academic to support their right to express them within the law (note 2) 
  1. civil engagement with reasoned argument and empirical evidence is a foundational value of HE, and essential for democracy. 

HESC resolves to: 

  1. re-affirm our commitment to academic freedom in research and teaching, and to the right of academics to participate in political debates 
  1. condemn the blacklisting and abuse of academics for exercising their academic freedom and lawful rights. 

HE32A.1 Higher education committee 

Add at end: 

  1. reaffirm that the rights of trans people and women are complementary 
  1. reaffirm the right of minority groups to self-identify 
  1. recognise the importance of the central involvement of trans, non-binary people and women in sex/gender studies/debates and campaign for the resources for this 
  1. calls for joint Women’s/LGBT+ Standing Committee session at Cradle to Grave conference and guidelines with Women’s/LGBT+ standing committee input on gender self-identification and cis women’s and trans rights enhancing each other. 

HE32A.2 LGBT+ members standing committee 

Add to resolves to iii and iv: 

  1. condemn any harassment of feminists and/or trans people for expressing views on sex, gender and gender identity; 
  1. construct spaces in which gender diversity can be explored through respectful dialogue underpinned by solidarity with all oppressed groups and the promotion of unity in action by women and trans people in the face of attacks on either group. 

Here we reproduce draft versions of some of the speeches made in favour of the motion. 

Moving HE32: Holly Smith UCL UCU 

You might ask why we are bringing a motion to Congress when UCU has established policy on academic freedom. Debates on sex and gender have become so heated that if you haven’t been following closely you might be shocked to hear about student campaigns for the summary dismissal of our members, universities inundated with demands to cancel lectures and events, a whole conference on Prison Abolition with 300 people registered cancelled by the Open University.  

One of the worst examples is the case of Professor Rosa Freedman an international expert on Human Rights Law who works with the United Nations to establish legal protections for minorities, including LGBT minorities. Last year Prof Freedman was approached on campus by a young man who called her a “transphobic Nazi who should get rapedas reported in the Guardian. Professor Freedman has endured shocking levels of harassment including death threats, calls for her to be sacked, calls for her to be no platformed wherever she goes to speak, and her office door being urinated on.  

The UCL branch stumbled into this last year when 6 members, including 3 of our branch committee and current and former Equality Reps, signed what we thought was an uncontroversial letter to the Guardian calling for academic freedom on sex and gender. Since when we have been slandered as bigots, but the worst thing has been a Facebook account which asked: please send photos of dead feministsposted a hit list of academics deemed to be bigots (including those who had signed the letter to the Guardian). The UCL branch have been brilliant supporting us. 

I think it is important to distinguish between disagreement, critique, and protest (which are absolutely legitimate in HE) and harassment, threats and calls for our members to lose their jobs. I hope that some of you picked up the article we wrote in the Morning Star on the way in, where we argue that fascists should be ‘no-platformed’, but not UCU members and human rights lawyers.   

Sex, gender and gender identity are issues about which our members hold diverse views, and even disagree about the definitions. The thing about academic freedom is that you don’t have to agree with anyone’s view to support their right to express it. We support the academic freedom of those who disagree with us, do you support ours? 

We welcome Amendment 32A.2 from the LGBT+ members standing committee, which is wholly in the spirit of the original motion in defending members and enabling respectful dialogue. 

Supporting speech: Judith Suissa UCL UCU 

We are not asking you to endorse or agree with the views of the people who have been victims of the kind of abuse and harassment Holly described.  What we are asking is that we send out a clear message that our commitment to academic freedom means that we cannot condone such treatment of our colleagues.  Academic freedom of course does not mean the right of anybody to say whatever they like.  Hate speech and incitement to violence have no place in our union or in our academic practice. But reasonable disagreement is part of the fabric of our work and our political activism. And reasonable people can and do disagree on the underlying issues within the framework of a commitment to trans rights and women’s rights.   

In a society rife with sexism, women need to discuss the reality of their bodily experience.  Both gender reassignment and sex are protected characteristics in the 2010 Equality Act, and if we want to fight sexism, we have to be able to talk about sex and sex differences. We have to be able to monitor and challenge sex-based discrimination, through for example campaigning on equal pay, protecting women’s services, and ensuring fair and appropriate healthcare.    

Academics from different disciplines have a range of views on sex and gender, and there is reasonable disagreement on the underlying assumptions, including amongst our own branch members who supported this motion.  But if merely referring to biological sex, or to sex differences, is enough to justify silencing, harassment and intimidation, then a lot of you may find yourselves on the receiving end of treatment that is not in line with our principles as a union, and that threatens both rigorous academic work and democratic culture.   

Whoever intends to speak against the motion, I hope that you will speak about the actual motion that you have before you.  

Supporting speech: Shereen Benjamin University of Edinburgh UCU 

I don’t have much to add to what’s already been said, but I want to give you a further example of why this motion is so necessary and so important.  

A group of UCU members at the University of Edinburgh are organising a panel discussion on women’s rights in a couple of weeks [1]. We’re not doing this as UCU, it’s part of our other work, but we’re all UCU members. Given the topic we expected to face criticism and protest, and of course that’s fine and something we fully support. But we’re facing much more than that.  

Within hours of the publicity for the event going live, the University was being tagged into defamatory tweets about the event, and our university Principal and my head of department started receiving emails calling on them to cancel it – in other words, the university was put under pressure to no-platform discussion of sex and gender. Some of those emails included misogynist and homophobic abuse of our speakers, many of whom are UCU members themselves.  

Since then, there have been online threats to stop the discussion taking place, for example by threatening to set off fire alarms and rape alarms, thereby attempting to prevent our speakers and audience members from exercising their academic freedom and lawful rights. Some of our speakers have received threats to their safety or their livelihoods if they participate. And I’ve had to spend time on email this afternoon dealing with today’s crop of online threats. There has been a constant stream of smears and unsubstantiated allegations stirring up hostility and fear on campus and beyond. As you can imagine, it’s a very intimidating situation for the organisers and speakers to find ourselves in, and we need to know that our union has our backs.  

The motion, and the very welcome amendment from the LGBT+ members standing committee, will provide re-assurance that UCU won’t stand for these sorts of threats to academic freedom. I urge you to support it.   

UCL UCU Right of Reply 

Our Branch Committee and our membership have a diversity of views on the substantive matters in the debates referred to in the motion. It is important that I tell you that. But they agreed that when our members face attacks because of their research and ideas, we have to defend their academic freedom. 

Speaker after speaker against the motion has claimed that it contains ‘transphobia’ written into the “fabric of its text”, but not a single one has been able to quote a single line or word of text to support this claim. They have said the context is what matters, but the context is a branch defending academic freedom for our members, regardless of agreement or disagreement with those members’ academic views. 

There’s been a claim that “opening up spaces” for dialogue in the amended motion gives problematic views an equal support from the union. It does not give anyone any support for their specific views, it just supports everyone’s right to engage in research and discussion. 

Some speakers have said the use of the word “blacklisting” is insulting. Well, in the strictest sense of employers passing rounds lists, this has not happened. But in the perfectly understandable extension of the term, where people face being put on lists with the intention of getting them fired or sanctioned in their jobs, this has happened. 

Finally, I just want to put it to you all: in order to oppose the motion and the academic freedom it proposes to defend, you would genuinely have to believe that the colleagues, our members, whose academic freedom it defends are engaged in hate speech and so beyond having their speech defended. The union has not adopted such a position. For that reasonyou should support the motion. 


Editor’s note

[1] This event, ‘Women’s Sex-based rights: what does (and should) the future hold’, took place in Edinburgh on Wednesday 5th June. One of the speakers, Julie Bindelwas attacked as she left the meeting.  

We believe that it is important to share a range of viewpoints on women’s rights and advancement from different perspectives. WPUK does not necessarily agree or endorse all the views that we share.