Speeches to UCL Academic Board Meeting on Stonewall Membership, 10th December 2021

Professor Alice Sullivan

Affiliation with Stonewall contributes to a climate which encourages the harassment of staff and students who contradict the Stonewall line on sex and gender. The case of Kathleen Stock, who was harassed out of her job at Sussex, and the case of Jo Phoenix, who is taking the Open University to court for constructive dismissal, illustrate the fact that the individuals targeted are usually women, and disproportionately lesbian. The Reindorf Review into two incidents of no-platforming at Essex University concluded that Stonewall had contributed to a climate promoting potentially unlawful actions by the university, including undermining the university’s obligation to uphold freedom of expression, and risking discrimination against female staff.

Stonewall have demanded “no debate” on their position on gender-identity. The views that Stonewall objects to are simply the true statements that sex is real and that it matters in a range of contexts. The conflict with academic freedom is fundamental and wide-ranging. I have direct personal experience of this.

Stonewall opposes data collection on sex, and has lobbied the Office for National Statistics and other public bodies accordingly. The view that data should not be collected on such a fundamental variable is in itself clearly in conflict with scientific and scholarly values. But Stonewall go further. They oppose any discussion of whether we should collect data on sex. I have personally been no-platformed from a research methods seminar simply because of my advocacy in favour of retaining data collection on sex. The event in question would have included participants from the Office for National Statistics, and this was in the context of a live debate on the sex question in the 2021 census for England and Wales. Nancy Kelley, now CEO of Stonewall, was directly involved in no-platforming me in her previous role at NatCen (the National Centre for Social Research). The event was cancelled entirely in order to avoid hearing my views.

I am one of the 66 colleagues who signed the submission to Academic Board against re-affiliating with Stonewall. 68 including 2 female professors who felt too intimidated to sign their names. 16 colleagues have submitted a paper presenting the pro-Stonewall view. This paper claims that affiliation with Stonewall has had no impact on Academic Freedom at UCL. This is not right. In fact, four of the 16 signatories to the pro-Stonewall submission also attempted to have a 2020 conference on women’s rights, co-organized by UCL academics and our third sector partners Woman’s Place UK, cancelled on the basis that it was (and I quote) in “direct contradiction to Stonewall’s UK Workplace Equality Index”. Ten UCL colleagues, including six EDI vice deans, posted a defamatory open letter  demanding that the then provost prevent the event from going ahead at UCL, and they publicised it in the student press. They not only slurred our reputations, but they succeeded in creating substantial difficulties for us as organisers. Right up until the morning of the conference, we did not know whether it would be allowed to proceed. With around a thousand delegates due to attend, I am sure colleagues can imagine how stressful this was. The fact that some of the same colleagues who invoked Stonewall in an attempt to shut our conference down are now claiming that there is no conflict between Stonewall membership and academic freedom speaks volumes.

Stonewall vilifies people who disagree with their viewpoint, for example comparing them to anti-Semites, as Nancy Kelley has done in a recent BBC interview. Affiliation with Stonewall makes it more, not less, difficult for UCL to provide a space for nuanced and respectful conversations on the wide range of issues where sex is relevant.

On a personal level, how can I be confident that UCL supports my academic freedom if we re-join an organisation whose CEO has had me no-platformed? I urge colleagues to vote against submission to any Stonewall scheme.

Professor Judith Suissa

I would just like to add some comments on the 2020 Women’s Liberation conference that Alice mentioned, in order to dispel some misperceptions. Firstly, there is a perception that the fact that the conference went ahead is evidence that Stonewall and the positions it advocates does not pose any threat to academic freedom. But this ignores the obstacles put in our way by those who made concerted attempts to shut down the conference, and the wider chilling effect of such moves on our academic community. 

The 2020 conference was an event to mark 50 years since the first Women’s Liberation Conference at Ruskin College. It brought together academics, politicians, journalists and activists working in fields such as women’s rights, domestic abuse, and sex trafficking. UCL has a code of practice on freedom of speech and a policy for managing external events, all of which were fully complied with by the conference organizers. Yet this was not regarded as sufficient by those who brought pressure on UCL managers to prevent the event from going ahead, leading to a raft of further excessive demands on the organizers. We were told to put the release of tickets on hold; we were asked to record every session; we are asked to hire extra security to cover every room used for our over 30 parallel sessions, thus leading to prohibitive costs that could have only been met by charging a far higher ticket price, making the conference far less inclusive and accessible.  

We were told that we should invite further speakers to present an alternative view-point so as to ensure “balance”.  It is hard to imagine what would qualify as an “alternative view” on a panel entitled “Ending Violence Against Women and Girls”.

The fact that we were able to resist these demands, not without weeks of stressful and time-consuming struggles speaks to another misperception about this issue, namely that it is overwhelmingly older, senior, academics who object to the line that Stonewall has taken on sex and gender. But in a climate where speaking out against the Stonewall orthodoxy exposes people to intimidation, threats and accusations of bigotry, it is of course more senior and secure staff who are likely to be willing to take this risk. More junior colleagues on insecure contracts, many of whom contacted us to express their support, would not have been able to stand up to the pressures that we faced to cancel our conference, and are likely to be put off from attempting to organize similar events in future.

Professor Lee Grieveson

I regularly proudly tell my students that UCL was the first University to admit women students, and that it was a radical university, established outside royal proclamation, and dogma, unlike those in Oxford, then Cambridge, and after us down the road at our royalist colleagues at King’s, College. It is utterly antithetical to the ideal of this university as a space of open debate and enquiry to sign up to the charter of a lobbying organisation that demands “no debate” and that overwhelmingly silences the voices of women. It is inconceivable in this university that we would outsource our duty of care to all of our community to an organisation that silences discussion. I speak with some recent experience as I was asked to disinvite myself from a plenary address at a conference at the University of St Andrews because I signed a letter calling for protection of the rights of feminist intellectuals to discuss sex as a biological reality in the space of the university. Regrettably, it is Stonewall’s policy – as cited in the letter to me – that such a belief is discriminatory and hate speech. Personally, I have nothing but love, solidarity, and comradeship with all my LGBTQ+ family, friends and colleagues, and with all those disempowered in our viciously unequal world. My plenary lecture is about colonialism, extraction, media, and climate breakdown, but this talk is now jeopardised because I signed a letter calling for the necessary protections of academic freedom. It is baffling to me that this silencing of scholarship is consistent with the policies of Stonewall, and that we are here debating whether we should submit ourselves to being evaluated by this organisation. More often this censoring of scholarship is directed at feminist intellectuals. Many of the brilliant feminist intellectuals in our community have signed the letter asking UCL to take its own lead on remaining a radical, open, inclusive university. I speak in support of that, and against the practice of (the neoliberal) outsourcing of our thinking on these issues to other organisations that demand that there be “no debate” about them. It is on US to create the radical space of convivial inclusion for all and for the promotion of discussion and disagreeing well that is foundational to this university. Our debate here today is not about who is right. (About, for example, the relationship between sex and gender.) It is about the right to debate. It would be a complete and catastrophic betrayal of the ideals of UCL to foreclose that right. I received such generous support from our Provost and other colleagues recently. I put it to you that WE can create a radical space of inclusion collectively. I urge you to vote No on re-joining Stonewall.

Leave a comment