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20 October 2021

Kathleen Stock and Sussex University: the war over academic freedom

How a campus trans row ended in protests, a police investigation – and a debate over the future of free speech.

By Harry Lambert

On Saturday 16 October nearly one hundred people took over an open day at the University of Sussex to protest the employment of Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy. “Stock out!” “Get Kathleen off our campus!” “No Terfs here!” rang the chants. “Don’t come to Sussex!” they warned visitors.

But of what were they warning them? A leaflet handed out by the protesters laid out their views. “Stock is one of this wretched island’s most prominent transphobes,” it said. The letter’s vituperative tone at times overwhelmed its author’s accuracy (“consencus”, “nessecity”). “Fire Kathleen Stock,” it concluded. “Until then, you’ll see us around.”

When I visited Stock recently, she spoke haltingly of the slow burn of her social isolation at Sussex, punctured as it has been by the discovery of new online attacks and internal emails undermining her in the wake of any publicity she attracts.

Stock – who believes that biological sex is immutable and occasionally takes precedence over someone’s gender identity – told me that a campaign has been waged against her since she raised concerns in 2018 over a shift away from sex-based rights to a world where any male could identify as a woman through self-declaration alone (a process known as “self-ID”). “This month is just the endgame. Some of my colleagues have been spinning a line against me for a long time,” she told me.

I asked Nehaal Bajwa, the diversity officer at Sussex Students’ Union, how Stock was contributing to the “dire state of unsafety for trans people in this colonial shit-hole”, as the leaflet put it. Stock’s views created “an unsafe atmosphere” for trans students, Bajwa said, as protesters overtook the campus square, setting off pink and blue flares, while Stock cancelled her courses and followed police advice to stay off campus and secure her home. I asked a protester whether the demo was designed to be intimidating. “We’re standing still,” they said. “Her presence to us is intimidating.”

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[see also: Kathleen Stock, trans rights and a crisis of free speech in British universities]

The conflict dates back to May 2018, when Stock published a blog post that calmly raised concerns over the shift to self-ID. “Some have pointed out,” she wrote, that “this change in the law will allow some duplicitous or badly motivated males to ‘change gender’ fairly easily,” putting women at risk not from those who are trans but from predatory men.

Women were being redefined, Stock added. “The category of women has historically been defined…” she noted, “in virtue of oppression on the basis of biological and reproductive characteristics.” Given that trans women did not share these characteristics, their lived experience differed materially from females, she said. It would be inaccurate, Stock suggested, not to distinguish between these sets of experiences.

These views have led to Stock being denigrated by some of her fellow academics at Sussex University. “Certain people seem to be emboldened to behave badly,” a supportive colleague of Stock’s told me. “The fact there is a police investigation surely means something really bad has happened.”

Stock, the child of a philosophy lecturer and a newspaper proof-reader, has been teaching at Sussex for nearly two decades. This year has been among the most notable in her career: she was awarded an OBE in the New Year Honours (prompting more than 600 academics to sign an open letter in criticism of the decision) and her book, Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism, was published.

Many of her supporters believe that Stock’s academic freedom is at risk. After her blog post in May and a follow-up interview in the Brighton Argus, her office was defaced with stickers stating: “If your feminism doesn’t include ALL women it’s NOT FEMINISM. Terfs Not Welcome Here.”

In 2018 the Argus ran pieces in which interviewees accused Stock of “putting students at physical and mental risk”, and warned “anti-trans groups” not to “hijack Pride” (Stock, who is gay, was quoted and pictured). The Sussex Students’ Union accused Stock of transphobia on Facebook, and a spyhole was put in Stock’s office door by campus security. In 2019 she was shown the quickest routes off stage at a graduation.

But the university did not act to address this culture of harassment, despite one fellow professor regularly hounding Stock online in all but name, and another academic openly tweeting “shame” on Stock and her “fellow transphobic ilk”. Instead, administrators gave Stock’s critics access to the internal email system to send school-wide messages without offering Stock a right of reply. And those in managerial roles supported her critics rather than remaining neutral. Stock became ever more socially isolated.

Three of Stock’s four fellow professors of philosophy at Sussex told me that they supported her academic freedom, but none would say so publicly, despite more than 200 UK academic philosophers signing an open letter supporting Stock’s and others’ “right to raise concerns on this matter”. The Oxford historian Timothy Garton Ash tweeted: “Whatever your views on her views on gender and sexual identity, every civilised person must condemn this harassment [and] intimidation of a woman on campus. It’s discrimination in the name of anti-discrimination, harassment in the name of anti-harassment.”

The outgoing Sussex vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, declined to speak to me. In a statement, the university said it had spoken out “against bullying and harassment”. Tickell recently made a clear statement in support of Stock on BBC radio. Yet he and his team are acting late, having left the accusation that one of their professors is “transphobic” unaddressed for years. Stock is now likely to leave her post.

[see also: “Women are in a bigger fight than the suffragettes”: Helen Joyce on the trans debate]

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This article appears in the 20 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Twilight of the West