Students are protesting against a member of academic staff who is a key voice in Gender Critical Feminism and is a signatory to the ‘WHRC Declaration on Women’s Sex-Based Rights’, which seeks to roll back the civil rights of trans people (See:https://chican3ry.medium.com/the-whrc-declaration-explained-part-1-5ded6522aa33), and who is a trustee of the Charity ‘LGB Alliance’, which also campaigns against trans rights.
The University of Sussex’ students’ protesters have been met with proclamations that ‘academic freedom’ is under attack, with social media users calling for the students to be expelled from the University. However, when the defence of a university professor, who has a national platform and name recognition, involves the silencing and denouncing of LGBTQ+ students and calls for their removal from the university space, the goal is not free speech but oppression. Academic freedom, and free speech more broadly, is not without its limits. Trans identity is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act. Academic freedom is not a licence to discriminate and create an atmosphere of intimidation and harassment.
The situation for young people in the UK is worrying. More than a quarter of trans young people have attempted to commit suicide, and 9 in 10 say they have thought about it. More than 4 in 5 trans young people have experienced verbal abuse, while almost two thirds have experienced threats and intimidation, and over a third have been physically assaulted (https://www.stonewall.org.uk/sites/default/files/trans_stats.pdf). It is vital that universities put in place appropriate support services in order to meet their duty of care to trans and non-binary students and, importantly, to create a culture of understanding and empathy to ensure an improved learning and teaching environment.
As academics, we have a responsibility to create a safe environment for trans students and staff alike. We need to take student concerns at Sussex and elsewhere seriously, and to address the structural transphobia and transmisogyny that are often apparent in HE. We must also work to strengthen EDI policies around gender diversity in the University to enable an equitable learning environment.