Our University is not only a place of open debate but should be an exemplar of how to have these debates, bringing the standards of inquiry we have as an academic institution not just into our own conversations but taking them out into wider society.
This, however, needs to be governed by clear rules that define our rights and reciprocal obligations to each other, and are acted on. These obligations are not just about following rules but about the care and regard we have for one another.
The OU is being tested about this at the current time given the strength of views and level of distress on all sides connected with a new academic initiative, the Gender Critical Research Network. The establishment of this network, based on critical scholarship about sex and gender, has caused hurt and a feeling of being abandoned among our trans, non-binary and gender non-conforming staff and students. It has also distressed many others in the wider OU community. This, and the well-being of all colleagues, greatly concerns me.
In responding to and discussing these developments and issues, we need to recognise the legal duties placed on the University that we must all respect, duties with regard to free speech set out in the Education Act 1986, the Education Reform Act 1988, the Human Rights Act 1998, the Equality Act 2010 and the Charities Act 2011. We all have a duty to uphold freedom of expression and academic freedom.
The OU has a very good Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom, agreed by Senate and Council, which is a reference point we should follow. No doubt it can be improved, and we have governance channels for considering such suggestions. We can learn all the time.
In the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive meeting, on Thursday 24th June, we discussed the current situation, with a full and frank exchange of views informed by the many representations we have had. We agreed that the formation of the network is compatible with our duty to uphold academic freedom, but we need to do more than this to safeguard the wellbeing of our community. We will take forward the following actions.
- In the light of recent reports and legal cases, the Group People Director, will lead a review of all relevant policies to ensure they are fit-for-purpose. Some actions within the terms of our current policies are necessary to ensure we stay compliant with our legal responsibilities, and those will be led by the University Secretary. To help us navigate this path fairly and responsibly, we will be supported by expert and independent legal counsel. We will also review how adequately our staff training and professional development address these issues.
- The Group People Director, with colleagues in Academic Services, will also be ensuring that all our staff and students have access to support for their wellbeing when encountering experiences that they find distressing or hurtful; experiences that we all have an obligation to avoid causing even if some views will cause offence. A key principle of the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom is that some standpoints may cause upset, but these must be presented in ways that are not hostile or degrading.
- The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, Enterprise and Scholarship, and the Dean of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, will consult on an initiative that aims to bring all parties at the OU together into a common conversation that seeks to find agreement, or agreement to disagree, on a civil and respectful basis.
- The Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research, Enterprise and Scholarship will also be reviewing how the University oversees the establishment of academic networks and centres, and whether there are lessons to be learned from recent events and from good practice across the sector.
We are striving to be a diverse and inclusive community within which everyone feels safe and valued. We will not always agree, and it will sometimes be a considerable challenge to find an acceptable balance between the tolerable and intolerable, but that is what we must all try to achieve.