In my time in higher education, it’s hard to think of a more contentious, sector-wide issue than the challenge of balancing our commitment to free speech and academic freedom, with our desire to provide an inclusive place for everyone in our university community.
Whenever subjects are divisive, politically sensitive, complex, and hotly discussed in wider society, it’s crucial that the academic community is thinking, questioning, and debating. Ensuring academic freedom is fundamental to us as a university and – like freedom of the press – it’s a cornerstone of an open society.
But that doesn’t mean that we don’t acknowledge the challenges that some discussions create.
One subject exemplifies the challenges that colleagues at the Open University and across the sector experience: as institutions we are committed to protecting the academic freedom of researchers who take a gender-critical perspective, but we also know that there are staff and students who feel their very existence or identity is being questioned through this work.
Holding different beliefs, expressing different views, and discussing contentious ideas isn’t the enemy of equity, diversity and inclusivity (EDI) policy. Education and research promote tolerance and understanding, through the creation and sharing of knowledge which informs debate – with our colleagues, our students, and with society. Policymakers, sports’ governing bodies, and politicians are struggling with these issues. The recent debate on women’s prisons in Scotland is one example.
As a university, the OU is committed to supporting academics who have gender-critical or trans-positive research perspectives to continue their work, publish, develop their careers, debate, and influence wider thinking, at an institution that takes care of their needs as individuals.
As part of that care, we are committed to ensuring that all colleagues and students feel accepted, included and supported to do their best work. But when people feel strongly, debate is rarely comfortable; and understanding, as institutions, where we draw the line in particular situations can be a challenging and complex task.
While we’re not alone in facing the challenge, we will be at the forefront of where the discussion goes next, with a high-profile employment tribunal due to start today. This is the latest in several cases that employers have faced, but we believe the first case of its kind in higher education in the UK.
We don’t know how the tribunal will rule on the many specific details in the case, but we believe that we’ve acted lawfully, appropriately, and in good faith, as we navigated our way through a previously untrodden path. Nevertheless, as an organisation we will learn from this case, and we will welcome any clarity and guidance to the sector that this may bring.
Whatever the outcome, now is the time to work together to turn our energies to creating an environment where contentious viewpoints and beliefs can be explored, and knowledge created in a way that’s compatible with the safety and security of all those working and studying in universities. And we must find a way of bringing civility back to the table, not just in universities, but across society.