It’s time for UCU to stand up for academic freedom – and for all of its members

Academic freedom – the right of academics to teach, research, speak and write freely – is a cardinal principle of modern universities. But, in practice, it is increasingly curtailed in British universities, as the government, some academics, managers, students and campaigners try to silence debate on “controversial” topics.

The government curtails academic freedom through the “Prevent” programme, which chills free speech and association on campus. Right-wing culture warriors undermine academic freedom by attacking left-wing academics' teaching and research. And managers violate academic freedom by closing down whole areas of scholarly activity.

UCU is strongly opposed to all of these opponents of academic freedom - but it is not a consistent defender of the principle, or all of its members. 

“Gender critical” scholars – those who argue that there is a biological basis to sex – are increasingly being prevented from teaching, researching and speaking about their ideas. They routinely face:

  • Harassment campaigns, especially on social media and by email.

  • “Blacklisting” by activists, including other academics, devoted to discouraging students from attending their institutions or even getting them sacked.

  • Public and anonymous defamation: accusations that they and/or their ideas are “transphobic” – hateful and harmful towards transgender people – and sometimes “homophobic” or even “fascist”. This sometimes involves formal complaints that result in disciplinary investigations.

  • Demands that they be removed from their academic posts, teaching responsibilities, positions as editors of scholarly publications, and/or roles on advisory boards.

  • Exclusion from participation in curriculum development.

  • Discouragement from pursuing legitimate research projects.

  • Being undermined by statements from their own universities which distance themselves from their work rather than robustly defending academic freedom.

  • Hostility during the peer review process, leading to the non-publication of research.

  • No-platforming/ disinvitations from speaking engagements at universities, sometimes following a campaign of intimidation and threats of violent unrest.

 

In extreme cases, these scholars also face threats of physical violence, including rape and death threats. One Oxford professor must be escorted to lectures by two security guards following threats.

 

Extensive evidence of such cases is collated here, here and here, but many incidents go unreported. Often, academics’ line managers and Human Resources departments do little or nothing to protect these scholars from sustained abuse. The result is a pervasive climate of fear and conformity.

 

So far, UCU has not only refused to reassert the principle of academic freedom with respect to gender; it has also failed to take a stand against this campaign of intimidation against (mostly) female members, which violates academics’ dignity and security in the workplace.

Indeed, leading members of UCU, including the general secretary, Jo Grady, have repeatedly dismissed the notion that gender critical scholars' academic freedom is under threat. They have instead added to the abuse they face, by insisting that their views are "transphobic" and that academic freedom should not be "abused" for this purpose.

 

UCU exists to defend the rights of all of its members. When one member’s academic freedom is curtailed – or, worse, when they are abused and threatened simply for doing their job – we all suffer. These principles protect us all in our right to pursue intellectual inquiry as we see fit, without fear or favour.

 

It’s time for UCU to take a principled stand, in support of academic freedom for all of its members.