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Ann Henderson: Reflections on the University of Edinburgh

We are proud to publish the following account by Ann Henderson of her time as Rector of the University of Edinburgh.

During her three-year tenure Ann was repeatedly subjected to unfounded allegations by students, student newspapers and student societies. The University failed to take appropriate action for the hostility directed toward her.

The following account is a damning indictment of the pernicious culture flourishing on some University campuses and the resulting curtailment of women’s participation in public life.

Ann Henderson: Reflections on the University of Edinburgh, and women in public life.

In February 2018 I was elected as Rector of the University of Edinburgh. My term of office came to an end on 28 February 2021.

The Rector chairs the University of Edinburgh’s highest governing body, the University Court, and works closely with students and the Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA). Both students and staff vote in the election of Rector.  The role is unpaid, with a very small amount of administrative support provided by the University. The post of Rector’s Assessor (also unpaid) provides additional support.  This was undertaken by Angi Lamb, an experienced University and College Union (UCU) member and previous Court member. Angi had also put forward my candidature and co-ordinated my campaign.

I was elected to the role, securing 77% of the votes cast, on a platform of campaigning activity, of support for the UCU staff engaged in a dispute over their pensions, of being ready to speak up for students and staff on childcare, on accommodation, and on improving the working and studying environment. I took on the role ready to share my experience from many years of commitment to the women’s movement and the labour movement. I was the second woman in 159 years to hold the post, Muriel Gray having been the first when she was elected as Rector in 1988.

Yet as recounted below, much of the time was taken up with fending off repeated unfounded allegations that effectively went unchallenged by the University. Indeed within less than six months of taking on the role of Rector I was subject to unsubstantiated public allegations of transphobia and abuse from a University of Edinburgh student organisation, establishing a pattern of behaviour that continued throughout my term of office.

Social media controversy

In addition to my role as Rector, in the summer of 2018 I was running in an internal Labour Party election for its National Executive Committee (NEC).  In August 2018 the University society Edinburgh Labour Students (ELS) published a public statement making unsubstantiated allegations of transphobia and antisemitism on my part, concluding that I was not fit to hold office in the Labour Party or as Rector.  ‘Not fit to hold office as Rector’ – a strong statement.

One of the allegations related to concerns raised by Lily Madigan – the first  transwoman to hold the position of Constituency Labour Party Women’s Officer – that I followed the feminist organisation Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) on Twitter.

Whilst we acknowledge that following an account by no means indicates support, we are confused as to why Ann failed to acknowledge or respond to the concerns Lily has rightly raised.

On 7 October 2018 I retweeted from my personal Twitter account, without any comment, a post by Fair Play for Women encouraging MPs to attend a meeting on the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act, taking place in the House of Commons.  The meeting was also supported by WPUK and Transgender Trend.

Parliament has an essential role to play in legislative scrutiny. Thorough scrutiny requires all the arguments to be heard, tested and questioned, and all affected voices heard, so that unintended consequences and conflicts can be addressed – before law is made. Arguing for women’s voices to be heard, campaigning and debating how best to bring about the progressive and re-distributive changes in our society that I believe to be essential, has been my life.

The post Ann retweeted encouraging MPs to attend a meeting on the proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act

Less than a week later, on 11 October 2018, the University of Edinburgh student newspaper The Student published an article stating that I had ‘been seen affirmatively responding to tweets by allegedly transphobic organisations’.  A statement by EUSA, the Edinburgh University Students Association,  described the women’s organisations as ‘explicitly transphobic’ and urged MPs not to attend the meeting:

The Sabbatical Officers have contacted the MPs representing the University area, Ian Murray and Tommy Sheppard, to urge they not attend the event referred to in the tweet, and to instead support the advancement of trans rights in the Gender Recognition Act (England and Wales) consultation.

A University statement distanced itself from my action, appeared to accept that the feminist organisations were transphobic, and implicated me by association:

The Rector posted these links/made these comments in a personal capacity. The university’s position is one of zero tolerance towards harassment, bullying, discrimination and victimisation of any kind – this includes zero tolerance towards transphobia.

On 13 October 2018 the University gave the following statement to the Herald newspaper, again alluding to potential transphobia on my part:

We have received informal complaints about Ann Henderson’s recent activity on twitter; we have also received expressions of support for her. We strongly believe both in the freedom of speech; and a zero tolerance policy towards transphobia. We will continue to give this current set of allegations careful consideration.

On 17 October 2018 Edinburgh University Pride Soc Committee lodged a complaint with the University Principal, expressing concern about my sharing information about the House of Commons meeting, and the ‘transphobic’ groups. The Committee asserted that both the University and EUSA supported transgender staff and students, including support for the GRA reforms, and that I had violated University policy. The complaint also noted that I had not acknowledged messages sent by either Pride Soc or the Staff Pride Network via Twitter:

By publicly supporting this event, the Rector is in direct violation of these polices. Furthermore, she has made the university feel less safe for transgender staff and students alike.

The Principal passed the complaint directly onto the Formal Complaints procedure, copying me into his email to Pride Soc.

No initial investigation was undertaken as to the veracity of the complaint: specifically, how sharing information about an open event for MPs might constitute a breach of University policy. Nor was it acknowledged that members of the University Court do not organise their diaries via Twitter.

University of Edinburgh Complaints procedure

I was advised that the first stage in the University Complaints procedure is mediation; however unlike students and staff, the University does not provide guidance to Court members on their representation rights, nor is there any provision for representation.

Neither the UCU Branch committee, nor the Joint Unions Liaison Committee (JULC) which co-ordinates work amongst the campus trade unions, issued any statements reiterating any principles regarding freedom of speech or commenting on the harassment directed at the Rector.

An external mediated session took place in December 2018, and in the absence of clear policy guidance, I was accompanied by a ‘silent friend’.  At the session, the following holding statement was agreed:

Pride Soc and the Students’ Association Vice President Welfare have met with Ann Henderson, the Rector. Discussions will continue in early January. We do, however, all agree that there was mutual respect and understanding at the meeting. There was also agreement that everyone should feel safe on campus and maintain respectful dialogue.

There had been no sign of the University giving ‘this set of allegations careful consideration’ as stated in October 2018.

EUSA had requested that I make a separate statement on my views on transphobia. I drafted a very short statement which reiterated my commitment to the University’s policies on dignity, respect, equality and diversity, as was appropriate to my role as Rector – and as discussed with, and guided by, the Principal in a one to one meeting with him on 8th January 2019. I was advised in late January 2019 by senior management that no complaints were outstanding, and the matter was closed.

Yet the matter was not closed. Indeed, the issue would continue to play out until the end of my term.

By the end of January 2019 EUSA withdrew from any work with me in my role as Rector, other than engagement with the University Court, unless I make a more detailed personal ‘clarified’ statement, thereby significantly limiting the scope of my role.

In April 2019 the Student newspaper carried a further article which included the assertion that I was transphobic.

The only way trans students from PrideSoc and staff from the Staff Pride Network could reach Ann Henderson was through a face-to-face ‘mediation,’ which highlights the university’s lack of recourse for the transphobic staff and students. Mediations are not appropriate solutions to transphobic incidents, as trans people should not have to politely sit down and discuss issues with their perpetrators who could pose a threat to them.

On 4 July 2019 I wrote to the Principal to ask for an intervention on the Student newspaper. I believed the recycling of these unsubstantiated allegations was defamatory, causing tensions in the wider University community, breached University policies on bullying, harassment and respect. The Principal declined to take any action, and instead suggested I ask for a ‘right of reply’, entirely failing to address the points I had raised with him.

Prior to the start of the 2019/20 academic year I met with the incoming EUSA sabbatical officers to discuss their campaign priorities, and where we could work together.  At the end of the meeting, in the presence of a EUSA staff member, the newly elected President announced that EUSA would not work with me, making allegations of antisemitism, and claiming that trans students did not feel safe [in my presence].  I was visibly shocked and upset.

Angi Lamb, as Rector’s Assessor, put in a complaint about third party bullying behaviour; however, this was not progressed as Angi sadly became very unwell herself unexpectedly.  EUSA ignored our request to put the allegations into writing, with evidence.

Again, I advised the Principal of the situation, which carried governance implications given that the Rector is required to work with EUSA, at minimum within the functioning of Court. The Principal responded to say he was not surprised to see EUSA’s continued position but would “speak to them“.

In November 2019 events at the University spilled over into my work in the Scottish Parliament, where I was employed by Labour MSP Elaine Smith. Elaine had extended an invitation to representatives of the EUSA Women’s campaign to attend a Women’s Dinner in the Scottish Parliament, which the invitees had accepted. Less than an hour before the Dinner started, Elaine’s office received an email stating that they would not attend, as they believed this would be letting down trans women students and not respecting their concerns, given the views of one of the Women’s Dinner event organisers.

Elaine indicated in writing that this was a serious matter, asking for the specifics of the complaint so that it could be passed to the Parliamentary authorities. In response the EUSA Women’s campaign representative stated that there was no requirement to pursue this further.

Into 2020 – my final year as Rector

I continued to undertake various engagements in my role as Rector in the first quarter of 2020, including chairing the February meeting of the University Court, where the early concerns about the COVID-19 virus were clearly emerging. I was pleased to be invited to speak as Rector at the International Women’s Day event in the Scottish Parliament, alongside the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon MSP and other speakers, although disappointed that the University did not see this, or any other of my speeches whilst Rector, as appropriate to share.

By the start of the pandemic in 2020, Angi Lamb was very unwell. Changes came in my own working life and home life as a result of COVID-19. While I worked with everyone as best I could, EUSA and the UCU branch barely engaged with me outwith formal meetings, and obviously the University at every level was primarily concerned with the response to the growing pandemic.

The next ‘speech’ I delivered was at Angi Lamb’s funeral in July 2020, in a lovely outdoor setting at Binning Woods in East Lothian.  The University community was important to Angi, and earlier that year she had been pleased to receive an Award from UCU Scotland. During lockdown I offered to send messages of congratulations and pre-records for online graduations, but this was not taken up.  Invitations dried up as events moved online.

In September 2020 an online petition was circulated on campus, including by the University of Edinburgh UCU Branch, protesting the University’s ‘inaction over ableism and transphobia’ in relation to a particular student case. The petition also contained the following statement:

‘Bigotry remains unchallenged towards trans and non-binary people – for example when university Rector Ann Henderson retweeted transphobic comments on Twitter, the only form of accountability the university offered was a face-to -face mediation with PrideSoc and the Staff Pride Network. It is deplorable that the university expects trans and non-binary members of our community to politely sit and debate their own existence.’

Again I wrote to the Principal. He responded as follows:

“In short, although we don’t accept the claims made in the petition, we note that UCU have not made or endorsed the comments made about you, that UCU are entitled to share details of the petition “in solidarity with the student concerned”, and that we think it will only make matters worse if we attempt to intervene on the petition.”

I received an apology in December from the UCU Branch secretary writing in a personal capacity, after some UCU members raised this at a meeting.

On 18th October 2020 I logged on to listen to an online webinar organised by WPUK.

A Woman’s Place is in conversation: Sex in the Census

This is a topic of widespread interest, but also for me at that time, of specific relevance to my job in the Scottish Parliament, with regard to policy development and legislative scrutiny.  The meeting was indeed very informative.

During the session in response to a comment made, I posted a short factual statement with regard to the Labour Party Rule Book, and a correction on Labour NEC membership, of which I was a member myself at that time.

A screenshot of my point, making allegations of transphobia that were not evidenced, was then circulated on Twitter by the Chair of the Labour Campaign on Trans Rights, triggering more social media activity.

Edinburgh Labour Students published a statement making further allegations of transphobia:

In August 2018, we reached out to Ann as she failed to comment or respond to concerns from a Labour Party member as to why she followed Woman’s Place UK on twitter. From our statement back in 2018, Woman’s Place: ‘… is a group that has referred to trans youth as mutilated/sexual predators, encouraged educators to treat trans youth as mentally ill and repeatedly referred to trans women as violent men, ‘parasites’ and rapists.’ As well as historically sharing material described as transphobic, Ann’s recent behaviour actively demonstrates a continuation of transphobic behaviour.

Transphobia has no place in the Labour Party. We will continue to do all that we can so that the trans community are not prejudiced against by those in positions of power. As Ann continues to engage in such behaviour, we wish to reiterate that we unequivocally do not support Ann holding office at our University, The University of Edinburgh, nor the Labour Party.

Following an intervention by WPUK the statement was taken down, but no apology was made.

I brought the social media post from the University of Edinburgh Labour Students to the attention of the Principal but received no response.

The wider climate

My experiences are not a one-off, either at the University of Edinburgh, or within the Higher Education sector.

From late 2018 onward aggressive interventions continued on campus.

The slogan ‘No TERFs on our Turf’ gained traction on social media among students, staff, and several official University accounts.

Tensions increased around a panel discussion event scheduled for 5 June 2019 on Women’s Sex Based Rights. A petition to cancel the event circulated on social media, describing the event as unacceptable, and affording credibility ‘to views expressing hate and phobic sentiments towards members of the University community’.  A rally opposing the event was organised by EUSA under the ‘No TERFs on our turf’ strapline, and its public supporters included the chair of the UCU branch.

The event went ahead with a range of speakers and was well attended, including by several MSPs. The discussion was constructive and informative. To address threats that had been made, the meeting was moved to a venue with an escape route direct from the stage, and security arrangements included several pre-meetings between the organisers and security managers, a one-hour security briefing for the speakers, organisers and chair, seven security guards onsite throughout, a security sweep of the lecture theatre beforehand, a back-up venue organised in case evacuation became necessary, and ID needed for entry.

One of the speakers, Julie Bindel, was verbally abused and almost punched, although physical contact was prevented by the intervention of the security team. Her attacker was subsequently charged with threatening and abusive behaviour, and subsequently found responsible.

In November 2019 a seminar on ‘Schools and Gender Diversity’ organised by Dr Shereen Benjamin, senior lecturer in Primary Education, was publicised. The Staff Pride Network committee protested the event, including claiming that it featured “speakers with a history of transphobia”, and one of the network co-conveners attempted to sabotage the booking system by inciting social media followers to block book tickets. The seminar was postponed, and over a year later it still has not taken place.

Analysis by the Legal Feminist collective has shown the considerable efforts made by the University in its Stonewall Workplace Equality Index submission, and some of the legal risks this carries.

The University ‘Trans Inclusion Policy’ is the only equality policy specific to a single protected characteristic.

Online material continues to circulate in the University, such as this advice for staff , about which a number of complaints and concerns have been submitted.

The poor interaction of various ‘equalities’ policies seems to be preventing a much-needed discussion in the University of Edinburgh on how to tackle the rising number of complaints from women around sexual harassment, around sex-based discrimination within the studying and working environment, and the requests for the establishment of a women’s staff or student network, as compatible with current equalities legislation.

Policies on which I had hoped to use my time and work constructively, including tackling the lack of childcare, around harassment and violence against women, on widening access to higher education, and the importance of the University’s realtionships in the city of Edinburgh– remain undeveloped.

Concluding thoughts

A commitment to freedom of expression includes facilitating debate that others wish to restrict or obstruct’

Freedom of expression does not extend to freedom to break the law, harass or defame individuals, or breach others’ rights to privacy.’

University of Edinburgh: Our Commitment to Freedom of Expression

On my appointment as Rector I signed up to the Nolan principles that govern public life, and compliance with the institution’s polices including on harassment, dignity and respect, and freedom of speech.  I expected to be protected by those policies, but this was not the case.

The lack of clear procedure in this area should be revisited, in the interests of all who give their time willingly and unremunerated, in public service for the University. Many institutions, organisations, and politicans  commit to encouraging more women to enter public life, without then speaking out against the bullying and harassment of those who do.

During my time as Rector, my relationship with EUSA and with the campus trade unions was never properly fulfilled.  Instead, much of my energy and limited time was consumed with unfounded allegations.  Every aspect of my personal and professional life was impacted.

The defamatory allegations made by students, including student societies and the student newspapers did not meet the Student Code of Conduct, nor the policies on dignity and respect.  Yet no action was taken in my three years as Rector.  On several occasions I asked the Principal to issue a public statement on freedom of speech, to make the wider University community aware of the need to adhere to policies and Codes of Conduct. This did not happen. Nor did the University make public in January 2019 the fact that there were no longer complaints in their Procedures against me.

There has been a significant personal cost, with time off work, sleepless nights, and fearing for my own physical safety around campus student venues.  At times I considered resigning, but this was about far more than one individual.

During my tenure I received many emails supportive of the rights of free speech and encouraging debate.  I also received emails from staff and students who were being bullied in their own classes or felt unable to speak up in their union or workplace.

I brought all of these, whilst protecting confidence when requested to do so, to the attention of the Principal, senior management, the EUSA sabbatical offices and trade union reps.  Those students and staff surely must have the right to also be treated with respect and dignity, and to expect their experience and concerns to be taken seriously.

The Gender Critical Academia website carries several anonymous accounts similar to the ones brought to me in which the University of Edinburgh is named.  They make grim reading.

It is not clear what substantive steps, if any, the University has taken to address this culture.  To make progress in the area, the University may wish to follow the example of the University of Essex, and commission an independent report.

In my concluding remarks at the final University Court meeting that I chaired on 22nd February 2021, I appealed to Court members to discuss the interaction between the different policies and statements around equality, diversity, freedom of speech, and respect for debate.  The University Court has a crucial role in the oversight and scrutiny of the running on the University, and cannot, in my view, avoid these questions.

My reflections on the last three years are not of course all negative.  Many staff and students across the different Schools and departments welcomed me with enthusiasm, and I learned so much about the wider University community, and its impact. I was able to assist with some projects, and add my voice to inspirational work being done by students and staff at every level. I’m sure very few knew of the pressure under which I was being placed.

The University itself, however, has shown minimal recognition of the second female Rector in 159 years.  No interviews were conducted or published, nor was the speech that I gave at my Rectorial Installation ceremony shared.  Instead a brief press release was issued. In March 2020, in what turned out to be my final public speaking engagement as Rector, speaking in the Scottish Parliament I submitted my speech to the University in advance and thought it would have made content for an International Women’s Day press release. There was no interest in doing so. The reports and speeches I wrote during my time were posted on a personal wordpress webpage, which I belatedly realised I had lost access to when Angi Lamb died, there being no distinct provision on the University webpages for sharing the Rector’s activity with the University community.

Recording the contribution that women make, matters.

My small action in October 2018 – a retweet from my personal account, that encouraged elected Members to listen to the voices of women, to listen to everyone with views on legislative proposals, to then make good laws – recognising that for many women, their voices were not being heard – had damaging repercussions for the remainder of my term.

I could never have imagined this being the case, in my early days of the women’s group at Edinburgh University in the 1970s, when so much change seemed possible for women’s lives.

Ann Henderson

Former Rector

University of Edinburgh (2018-21)

 

  • Read our previous statements on the attacks on Ann Henderson:

Edinburgh Labour Students

Free speech at Edinburgh University

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.

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