Students should be told during Freshers’ Week that universities are not there to protect their feelings, academics have said as they call for change in the wake of a professor’s resignation.
The “real blame” for the “ludicrous” culture that has emerged on British campuses lies with universities rather than “young and immature” students, a leading Oxford scholar has said.
Prof Michael Biggs, an expert in sociology at Oxford University, told The Telegraph: “Instead of endlessly pandering to the students, universities need to make it very, very clear in the inductions, in Freshers’ Week, that the institution exists to uphold academic freedom. And if they are unhappy about that, they need to leave.”
This week Prof Kathleen Stock quit Sussex University, with the higher education minister blaming her departure on a “toxic” campus environment.
Prof Stock, an expert in analytic philosophy, has faced death threats amid accusations of “transphobia”, which she denies. Earlier this month, students erected posters around campus, urging the university to fire her.
On Thursday Prof Stock announced that she was leaving Sussex University, explaining that it had been a “very difficult few years” and she hoped other institutions in similar situations could learn from this.
Academic ‘hounded out’ over transgender views
Allies of Prof Stock have accused Sussex University bosses of failing to protect her from being “hounded” out.
“I think what happened at Sussex is absolutely disastrous. It’s a complete failure of management,” said Alice Sullivan, a professor of sociology at University College London.
“The fact that Kathleen has been hounded out of her job is a scalp for the bullies and will embolden them to try and do the same thing again.”
Prof Sullivan said vice-Chancellors need to “stop pretending there is no crisis of free speech and start paying attention to the problem and trying to solve it”.
She went on to say that universities are worried about criticising students who, through their £9,250-per-year tuition fees, are a major source of income.
“The main thing most vice-chancellors care about is their bottom line,” she said. “Students are customers so they are very nervous about doing anything that might antagonise them.”
Prof Stock recently published a book questioning the idea that gender identity is more “socially significant” than biological sex.
She has previously questioned the idea that men who feel like women should have automatic access to women-only facilities such as changing rooms, or be allowed to appear on women-only shortlists or sports teams.
Earlier this month, a group calling itself “Anti-Terf Sussex” described Prof Stock online as “one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes, espousing a bastardised variation of radical feminism”.
Terf, which stands for trans exclusionary radical feminist, is generally used as a derogatory term to describe those who believe that “identifying” as a woman is not the same as being born a woman. It can also be used to refer to people who are deemed to hold “transphobic” views.
In the wake of the threats she faced from transgender activists, Prof Stock was advised by the police to have CCTV installed at her front door and put a marker on her phone so that if she dials 999 there is an automatic call-out to her house.
Sussex University’s vice-chancellor, Prof Adam Tickell, has made a series of statements in recent weeks in support of Prof Stock, which made clear that “threats” to academic freedom will not be tolerated.
But some academics claim that this was “too little, too late”, given that Prof Stock has already spent three years being harassed over her view on gender.
Prof Rosa Freedman, an expert in international human rights law at Reading university, said there should have been “much clearer statements from the university from the outset, saying it is never ok to harass anyone on campus including staff”.
By failing to take a robust stand at an earlier stage, it “almost legitimises certain behaviour and makes students think that it is ok for them to act in that way”, she added.
‘Educate students on importance of academic freedom’
Several other “gender-critical” academics agree with Prof Biggs that universities need to educate students about the importance of academic freedom.
Prof Sullivan said that many students – as well as university staff – do not understand the value of “productive disagreement”.
“We need to educate young people about the concept of dealing with the argument rather than demonising the person they disagree with,” she said.
Prof Jo Phoenix, chair in criminology at the Open University, said she also believes freshers need to be taught to respect academic freedom, adding that universities need to “reset” their culture.
The real problem, according to Prof Biggs, is that students are encouraged to believe that being “offended” is “somehow a legitimate concern that can be used to bully an academic”.
“Students fundamentally misunderstand what the point of a university is. It is to pursue truth, not to protect their feelings,” he said.
“Different people have different views which need to be aired and defended robustly. On gender issues, universities have completely failed to make students see this.
“Students were arguing that Prof Stock’s very existence, her presence in the university makes them feel unsafe. This is ludicrous, it’s a university.”
Prof Tickell said that Prof Stock’s departure this week was a “loss to us all”, adding: “We had hoped that [she] would feel able to return to work, and we would have supported her to do so.
“She has decided that recent events have meant that this will not be possible, and we respect and understand that decision. We will miss her many contributions, from which the University has benefited during her time here.”