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Artillery Row

Why UCL are shutting the door on Stonewall

The university is taking a stand against an organisation that has lost its way

Anyone who works in education will understand the power of league tables to drive management priorities. Stonewall’s decisive influence over the organisations who submit to its schemes rests on the force of league tables and awards to determine institutional behaviour. Employers pay to join the Diversity Champions Scheme and can also submit to the Workplace Equality Index which ranks the top 100 employers.

Submissions are judged in terms of compliance with Stonewall’s values and interpretation of the law, with points awarded for embedding these in policies and workplace culture, training, equalities monitoring, staff networks, and organisational communications. Organisations can pay for further training on how to climb the rankings. Stonewall sets the homework, marks it, and charges for extra tuition.

Stonewall vilifies people who disagree with their viewpoint

This kind of corporate box-ticking exercise induces a blind obedience which is anathema to the critical and independent thinking that universities should instil. If universities are to protect our function as a forum for discussion and intellectual enquiry, we cannot be seen to be allied to the positions of any particular lobby group. To do so sends a chilling signal to staff and students who may disagree with some of these positions or simply wish to explore the issues before coming to a view. 

The conflict between academic values and allegiance to Stonewall is particularly stark because of its overt opposition to freedom of expression, particularly in academia. Stonewall has demanded “no debate” on its 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.

For example, 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 clearly in conflict with scientific and scholarly values. But Stonewall goes further; it opposes any discussion of whether we should collect data on sex. 

I have been no-platformed from a research methods seminar simply because of my advocacy in favour of retaining data collection on sex — not instead of, but in addition to data on people’s self-declared gender identity. Nancy Kelley, now CEO of Stonewall, was involved in the cancellation of the event in question, simply to avoid hearing my views. And Stonewall’s antipathy for sex-based data collection informs the advice it gives to employers: Stonewall training on equalities monitoring says that employers will lose points in the Workplace Equalities Index if they collect data on sex rather than “gender”.

Many people feel an emotional allegiance to Stonewall, and this is understandable given the organisation’s historically important role in advancing gay rights in the UK. University management worry that leaving Stonewall may be perceived as signalling a lack of commitment to LGBT equality. But LGBT people do not all think alike, and Stonewall’s uncompromising stance has led it into conflict with feminists and some LGBT activists, including founding members of Stonewall. 

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 academics targeted by Stonewall allies are usually women, and disproportionately lesbian. Stonewall vilifies people who disagree with their viewpoint, for example comparing them to anti-Semites, as Nancy Kelley once did in a BBC interview. 

The way in which UCL has handled the decision to cut ties with Stonewall exemplifies the values of respectful debate and democratic academic governance. UCL’s Stonewall memberships lapsed during 2020 for reasons relating to the pandemic. When this became known, strong views were expressed regarding whether UCL should re-join. 

The decision was taken to allow the question to be aired at Academic Board. Academic Board represents academic governance at UCL and advises UCL Council on all academic matters and questions affecting the educational policy of UCL. All professors are members of Academic Board, and there are elected members from all other categories of staff, including professional staff, and from students. The step of acknowledging the wider educational significance of Stonewall membership and putting the matter to Academic Board was vital. Previous decisions regarding Stonewall had been made by the Equality Diversity and Inclusion committee without the input of academic governance.

Questions regarding equality, diversity and inclusion and academic freedom are too important to be outsourced

A detailed set of papers was submitted to Academic Board in advance of the meeting: a neutral background paper, and papers submitted by academics in favour of and against re-affiliation with Stonewall. All of these papers have been published. At the meeting, attended by over 300 people, contributions alternated between those for and against. There were both men and women and colleagues identifying themselves as LGBT on both sides of the debate. The meeting, which was held under Chatham House Rules, concluded with an anonymous vote.

The vote was decisive, with around a two-to-one margin against rejoining either the Diversity Champions scheme or Workplace Equality Index. Academic Board’s decision was unanimously endorsed by UCL’s United Management Committee, which noted that the debate “had been conducted in a positive, constructive and respectful manner. A wide range of voices and a diverse range of views had been heard. It was noted that there was not unified support for Stonewall within the LGBQT+ community”.

Universities need to understand that tackling bullying and harassment is necessary to upholding an atmosphere of tolerance which underpins constructive disagreement and learning. Affiliation with Stonewall contributes to a climate which encourages the bullying of staff and students who contradict the party line, making it more, not less, difficult to provide a space for nuanced and respectful conversations on the wide range of issues where sex is relevant. I hope that upcoming legal cases brought by Jo Phoenix and Raquel Rosario Sanchez will concentrate the minds of Vice Chancellors on this issue. 

Questions regarding equality, diversity and inclusion and academic freedom are too important to be outsourced or delegated to sub-committees. It is vital that we discuss such matters openly as an academic community. This is a first step towards a deeper inclusivity, respecting all protected characteristics, and indeed the diversity within each group, alongside academic freedom.

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