Friday 21 May 2021

When Higher Education Encounters a Stone Wall...

The VC at Essex University has written a very sober post on his blog to staff about the University's mistakes in handling objections to  two speaker invitations, including open apologies to the two academics concerned.  He also writes: I was deeply concerned to read the input into the review from some staff and students who said that they felt constrained to self-censor their speech and activity because of concerns about how we manage the balance between freedom of speech and our commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion. 

When one goes on to read the Report one can see why he is concerned. Akua Reindorf, the Barrister who was commissioned by the University to undertake the independent review, does not pull her punches.

At the heart of her criticisms is the influence that Stonewall, the advocacy and campaigning organisation, has had on the University's Policies and Practices. The University, like many others, in pursuit of its aspirations around diversity, equality and inclusion, has signed up to be a Stonewall Champion, and aspires for continuing Stonewall recognition as an outstanding (Top 100) employer.

Unfortunately, Stonewall does not seem to merit being seen as the Best Practice benchmark that Universities, and many other bodies, assume it to be. 

For example, Reindorf notes that the University's policy on supporting trans and non-binary staff 'is reviewed annually by Stonewall, and its incorrect summary of the law does not appear to have been picked up by them. In my view the policy states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is.'

Reindorf recommends that: The University should give careful and thorough consideration to the relative benefits and disbenefits of its relationship with Stonewall, bearing in mind the issues raised in this report. In particular, it should consider that this relationship appears to have given University members the impression that gender critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution,'  and that 'If the University considers it appropriate to continue its relationship with Stonewall, it should devise a strategy for countering the drawbacks and potential illegalities described above.'

Many other HEIs have signed up as Stonewall Champions. Reindorf's findings suggest a culture of fear that some academics and professional staff experience if they don't wholeheartedly endorse Stonewall's distinctive position; which, it seems to me (as to Reindorf) works precisely against both the academy's wider responsibilities and mission, and more specifically, against a culture of diversity and inclusion. I hope that other institutions follow Reindorf's recommendations; and perhaps with more courage than Essex appears to be doing in this regard.

I blog about this, as in the context of confidential coaching conversations, I have heard academics and senior professional staff talk about things that they consider undiscussable, both with regard to this and other highly politicised issues, where voicing a view that differs from the perceived orthodoxy is seen as highly risky, personally and professionally. I think that is a failure in the academy.

And I nearly didn't blog about it, for fear of being 'outed' as a 'transphobe,' which of course could be very damaging to my professional practice and credibility. But I refuse to be cowed by the very bullying culture that I decry; and I rely on the wisdom of my clients to recognise some important distinctions; for example, between disagreeing with Stonewall and any wider agenda; and indeed, between disagreeing and hating - a line that some activists seem to me very keen to obscure.


With thanks to Rory McKeever and Nsey Benajah for sharing their photos on Unsplash

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