The Open University (OU) has “unreservedly apologised” and promised to conduct a “major independent review of our internal working environment” after a judge ruled that it failed to protect an academic staff member with ‘gender critical’ views.
In an important victory for freedom of speech, former OU Professor of Criminology, Jo Phoenix, who established the OU’s Gender Critical Research Network (GCRN), won her employment tribunal against the institution earlier this week, having suffered discrimination on the basis of her gender critical beliefs.
The extraordinary, 155-page ruling (which the FSU has reviewed here) found that the OU’s failure to protect Prof Phoenix from harassment from colleagues and trans activists was motivated by “fear of being seen to support gender-critical beliefs” and “fear of the pro gender identity section” of the university.
In the immediate aftermath of the ruling, OU Vice-Chancellor Prof Tim Blackman had mooted the possibility of appealing the ruling.
However, in a statement issued late on Friday evening (26th January), Prof Blackman said the judgment “made difficult reading for all of us” and “in several areas we fell very short”.
“We apologise unreservedly to Professor Phoenix for the hurt and distress this has caused,” he went on to say.
Tensions first emerged at the OU in 2018 after Prof Phoenix and 53 other academics signed a letter to The Guardian newspaper raising concerns about the introduction of self-ID for trans people wanting to undergo gender reassignment. This caused disquiet among some of her senior colleagues in the OU’s Social Policy and Criminology Department, particularly the following trio, whose names feature with grim regularity throughout the ruling: senior lecturer and transgender academic lead for EDI Dr Leigh Downes, Head of Subject Prof Louise Westmarland, and Head of Department Dr Deborah Drake, all of whom were found by the tribunal to be “supportive and/or sympathetic to gender identity views rather than gender critical views”.
A year later, in June 2019, more departmental pearl-clutching ensued, when The Sunday Times published a letter signed by Prof Phoenix and other academics registering “disquiet over a perceived inappropriately close relationship between the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall and UK universities”.
Her views as set out in that letter were described by Dr Drake, as “problematic and scary” and “so embarrassing and unsettling”. Dr Downes also took it upon themselves to write to Dr Drake to demand “punitive measures” be taken against Prof Phoenix.
Later that year, Prof Westmarland reduced Prof Phoenix to tears when she raised her gender-critical views in a meeting. “Prof Westmarland said to [Prof Phoenix] that ‘having you in the department was like having a racist uncle at the Christmas dinner table’,” the tribunal found, and that in doing so, she “was effectively telling the Claimant off for expressing her gender critical beliefs”.
Perhaps most troublingly of all, following the establishment of GCRN, 368 of Prof Phoenix’s colleagues signed an open letter calling for the disaffiliation of the group, which it labelled “transphobic”, from the OU because of the beliefs of its members.
The ruling found that the content (labelling Professor Phoenix as hostile to the rights of trans, non-binary and gender queer people and demanding disaffiliation of the GCRN from the OU), the signing (having 368 signatures) and the publication of the open letter “had a chilling effect on the claimant expressing her gender critical beliefs and carrying out gender critical research”.
Prof Phoenix, who also faced death threats, asked the university to intervene but, despite releasing statements that acknowledged “distress on all sides”, the tribunal found the institution did nothing to stop the attacks because it “was fearful of outwardly being seen in any way to support the members of the GCRN…in case it was seen as support for gender-critical beliefs”.
In December 2021, Prof Phoenix resigned from the OU, saying she had been made to feel like a “pariah” and then took the university to the tribunal.
In his statement, Professor Blackman said the university’s “understanding of academic freedom and freedom of speech at the time meant we did not intervene about the open letter, statements and social media posts that followed the GCRN’s launch”.
“The tribunal ruling makes it clear that we should have acted differently to address the impact of this reaction on Professor Phoenix and the working environment that she experienced. We are sorry that this has been a painful episode for many colleagues,” he said.
Elsewhere in his statement, the Vice-Chancellor says: “This is not The Open University we want to be.”
If Prof Blackman really means that, then he and his executive team should now call-in, and take a leading role in reviewing, the details of two pending Employment Tribunal cases – that of Pilgrim Tucker, a PhD student who says she’s been bullied and harassed at the OU because of her gender critical views, as well as the case of FSU member Almut Gadow, who was sacked from her role teaching criminal law at the OU after she challenged new requirements to teach gender identity theory as an uncontested truth.