December 1, 2021
Proposed legislation to protect free speech on campus could have prevented the harassment that drove Kathleen Stock to leave UK academia, the former University of Sussex professor has claimed.
Asked if the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, which is currently passing through the House of Commons, would have affected her situation at Sussex if it was already in place, Professor Stock insisted that “it would have made a real difference because there is a real lack of understanding of the value of free speech and academic freedom” on British university campuses.
“It may sound draconian but [legislation] is needed because universities have failed to grasp this problem,” Professor Stock told an audience at the Legatum Institute in London on 30 November.
Professor Stock announced on 28 October that she was leaving her post as professor of philosophy after being targeted by protesters, who accused her of transphobia – which she denies – over her insistence that individuals cannot change their biological sex. The author of Material Girls has since spoken out about the “exhaustion” she felt after years of negative treatment by colleagues that she believed amounted to “reputation trashing”, claiming some academics at Sussex have publicly supported student efforts to have her fired for her views.
Speaking to an event organised by the right-leaning thinktank in London, Professor Stock stated that the proposed legislation to strengthen existing free speech duties at English universities and extend them to student unions would have made students and peers feel less “emboldened” to act against her.
“If my detractors at Sussex had been warned about [the importance] of academic freedom and knew what it was for, it is possible they would not have been emboldened as they did,” said Professor Stock, who spoke alongside Niall Ferguson, the Stanford University historian. Both have joined the University of Austin, a private liberal arts institution in the US, in response to what he called the “growing illiberalism” on campuses.
Professor Stock also criticised a raft of national higher education frameworks and policies – including the National Student Survey, teaching excellence framework and the research excellence framework – for worsening the “general fear of speaking out, against the grain, in controversial areas”.
“Student satisfaction is a big measure of what universities are,” said Professor Stock, who said the importance of these scores in the NSS and TEF had created “expectations” among students that their views on certain academic matters would be accommodated.
Students had also been encouraged to become involved with the “co-creation of curricula”, which was a “reimagining of the pedagogic relationship, and it is giving students a lot more power”, she continued.
“The Office for Students [the English regulator] is very supportive of this but you have to think how this impacts on the ability of staff to say things that people might not like,” Professor Stock said.
The REF’s growing emphasis on impact and research that found an audience outside universities may also be detrimental to scholars wishing to challenge long-held beliefs, she added.
“It’s quite conservative because universities prioritise work which will have impact and promote research that will find a receptive audience,” said Professor Stock.
Universities’ massively increased focus on equality, diversity and inclusion – a concept that was “construed very narrowly” – also had implications for free speech and academic freedom because those who did not subscribe to a specific interpretation were “treated as heretics”, she added.
“Universities have been told they have to go beyond the law and actively embody EDI which creates an intensely moralising atmosphere,” said Professor Stock, who said this agenda’s inclusion into promotion structures “incentivises people to become very moralised”.
On the need for legislation, she concluded that it was “a shame that we have to use such a big stick to get universities to recognise the value of academic freedom which should be seen as an end in itself”.