Update on the review of the two events involving external speakers (July 2022)

The May 2021 Reindorf Review of two events, the cancellation of a Centre for Criminology seminar and arrangements for speaker invitations to a Holocaust Memorial Week event, makes clear that the University of Essex has made serious mistakes and we need to do our very best to learn from these and to ensure they are not repeated.

All universities have a responsibility to protect academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law. At the University of Essex we have a vital role to play in convening difficult and sometimes uncomfortable conversations on our campuses and through our online events, and in curating the spaces in which ideas that some may find challenging or unpopular can be expressed and debated. We are committed to enabling people to speak freely within the law by providing a supportive and inclusive environment, within which people can expect to learn, grow and develop through challenge. As a community this means that we may encounter ideas or arguments which may be experienced as objectionable or offensive, with a line drawn at conduct which is unlawful or contrary to the University’s policies.

The University’s Senate and Council agreed a range of follow-up actions in response to the Reindorf Review. On behalf of the University, the Vice-Chancellor offered apologies to the external speakers and to staff and students. The Vice-Chancellor also apologised to trans and non-binary students and staff.

The University has now revised our Speaker Code of Practice designed to ensure that we support academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law. We have amended our: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy; our approach to Supporting Trans, Non-Binary and Gender Non-Conforming Staff our Harassment and Bullying Zero Tolerance Approach policy and our Report and Support’ online system and support systems for reporting all forms of discrimination, bullying, hate incidents and harassment. Following Privy Council approval, we have also revised our Royal Charter and support systems for reporting all forms of discrimination, bullying, hate incidents and harassment.

A range of opportunities have been offered to the speaker whose event was wrongfully cancelled, to present a seminar either on the topic initially planned, or any other topic that might be more relevant to their current research. Whilst those opportunities have not so far been taken up, they remain open should that be something that the speaker would want.

We have also taken a range of actions to address the impact of these events on members of our community. This has included consulting with our community to devise and ensure implementation of a strategy for repairing relationships between trans and nonbinary University members and those with gender critical views, in particular women.

The Reindorf Review also identified specific issues that the University should address about the University’s relationship with Stonewall. The issues raised included:

  • That the University had made inaccurate and misleading statements about the current law in relation to trans rights in its Supporting Trans and Non-Binary Staff Guidance and Harassment and Bullying Zero Tolerance Policy. This “might lend credence to the idea that [conduct] could amount to or lead to unlawful harassment…The policy is reviewed annually by Stonewall, and its incorrect summary of the law does not appear to have been picked up by them” (243.11).
  • Expressing concern about the impact of the relationship with Stonewall on the culture of the University, including giving University members the impression that gender critical academics can legitimately be excluded from the institution; the potential effect of this on the University’s obligations to uphold freedom of expression; the effect on University members’ understanding of the values of the institution and the effect on those members of the University who hold gender critical views.
  • That “[i]f the University considers it appropriate to continue its relationship with Stonewall, it should devise a strategy for countering the drawbacks and potential illegalities described above.”

In response to these concerns, our Senate and Council reviewed how the University should address the specific issues raised in the report. One aspect of this review was a consultation exercise conducted during the Autumn Term 2021. This provided an opportunity for all members of our community to contribute and provide feedback on our relationship with Stonewall through an online survey.

Senate and Council have now concluded consideration of this final aspect of the Action Plan agreed in response to the Reindorf Review. In evaluating the relationship with Stonewall, specific consideration has been given to the full range of safeguards the University now has in place to ensure that the potential illegalities and drawbacks set out in the Reindorf Review can be avoided or mitigated.

In particular, Senate and Council were keen to ensure that the University has the right measures in place to militate against any potential chilling effect on academic freedom and freedom of speech within the law, that might arise from a continued relationship with Stonewall; that through its portfolio approach to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion the University is demonstrably engaging with a diverse range of organisations and sources of advice; that the University is able to exercise its own judgement in relation to the development of its policies and practices and is not susceptible to undue influence from any one organisation; and that the University’s relationships with external bodies, alongside the use of charters and benchmark tools such as Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index, are subject to regular review to ensure that they continue to add value for staff and students and represent value for money in the use of University resources.

Alongside consideration of these issues, the Vice-Chancellor has instigated work to ensure that the University is consistently discharging its responsibilities as an employer to support all staff and students who are exercising their academic freedom and rights to freedom of speech within the law, with mechanisms in place for monitoring this throughout the year.

In the light of this careful and thorough consideration, including taking account of the views of the members of the University community, the majority of whom regard Stonewall as a valued partner, the University’s Senate and Council have endorsed the University’s continued participation in Stonewall’s Global Diversity Champions programme and submission to the Workplace Equality Index. You can see the basis upon which this decision was taken here. This conclusion has been reached in recognition of the important benefits institutionally and for individuals that currently arise from the relationship, alongside the range of strategies and safeguards designed to counter “potential illegalities or drawbacks”, to promote the University’s commitment to Academic Freedom and Freedom of Speech within the law and to ensure the University operates in a manner consistent with all of its statutory and other duties in delivering its mission of excellence in education and research for the benefit of individuals and communities.

As the Vice-Chancellor has stated having the right policies in place is vital in promoting the organisational culture that we want and in ensuring that the University acts lawfully. Our policies enable us to be unequivocal in setting out the behaviours that we expect and provide clear expectations for how we treat each other. But policies are only effective if our staff and students are aware of them and feel confident using them – and only then can they be effective in promoting an inclusive environment to work, study and live shaped by a plurality of voices. We must all work hard to ensure this is the case as members of the University.