gender identity
A group of hard-left academics has been accused of stifling free speech on university campuses by plotting a witch-hunt against colleagues on gender identity.

University and College Union (UCU) members pledged to compile a list of university backroom staff suspected of holding gender-critical beliefs, the minutes from a meeting leaked to The Times reveal.

The plan was to use this information to "inform" UCU university branches of their colleagues' views, accusing them of being "transphobes" and "gender-critical activists".

Academics said members of UCU, the lecturers' union that represents more than 120,000 academics on UK campuses, were amplifying attacks on gender-critical feminists, with those speaking about sex-based rights compared to Holocaust deniers.

The findings come amid concern that British universities are damaging their reputations by restricting free speech on campuses.

A Times investigation yesterday revealed that universities have started removing books from reading lists to protect students from challenging content and have applied trigger warnings to more than 1,000 texts.

Arguments over gender identity theory — or whether a person's psychological sense of their gender is at least as relevant as their biological sex — have raged in recent years on campuses.

During a UCU meeting in September last year, its LGBT members standing committee agreed to email a survey to LGBT members at universities across the country.

Minutes stated that the survey would "get information about gender critical equality, diversity and inclusion consultants ... employed in HR departments of various institutions".

It suggested that a question could be included in the survey asking: "Are you aware of your institution employing EDI [equality, diversity and inclusion] consultants in the sector and if so which ones."

The minutes added: "The last question is to get information about how many HR and senior HR staff/consultants are gender critical and then to inform branches, so that they are aware of any problems which may arise in a particular branch.

"Some of the EDI consultants are transphobes and prominent gender critical activists."

One academic, who spoke anonymously for fear of repercussions, claimed: "These minutes are compelling evidence that UCU is seeking to discriminate against and harass members who believe in sex."

The Times has not seen the finalised survey sent out to members and the UCU did not provide it.

The UCU said it surveyed its LGBT members as part of its commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion, but did not ask about the views of EDI colleagues at universities.

It did not respond when asked if it had included any questions at all about EDI staff.

A spokesman said: "This survey did not contain any questions about the views, gender critical or otherwise, of senior HR or EDI staff, nor did it ask respondents to identify institutions which employed them. A suggestion to the contrary is untrue."

He said the UCU was committed to "inclusion and to non-discriminatory conduct at all times", adding: "UCU is a proud and unequivocal supporter of trans rights, a position established and repeatedly endorsed by members at its annual congress."

Leaked minutes also reveal the extent to which the UCU's general secretary, Jo Grady, supported those accused of helping to force out Dr Kathleen Stock from Sussex University.

Stock, 50, a philosophy professor, quit the university in October 2021 after what she described as a "bullying and harassment" campaign over her gender-critical beliefs.

Grady, 38, a senior lecturer in employment relations at the University of Sheffield, was elected as the UCU's general secretary in 2019.

She has been bolstered by a new faction of union members — called UCU Commons — branded "hostile to academic freedom". Three members are on the UCU committee that planned the survey on colleagues' trans views.

Grady, who earned £140,213 in salary and benefits in 2021, attended a meeting of the same committee in January this year.

The leaked minutes reveal she had met with the University of Sussex's UCU branch "late last year", after Stock's resignation. Instead of backing Stock, the Sussex branch of the UCU called for an investigation into "transphobia" at the university.

During her visit to the branch, Grady "asked them what mechanisms could have been in place which would have benefited them", the leaked minutes reveal.

They add: "The situation is likely to arise again and it is important to have mechanisms in place to ensure that the situation which the Sussex branch went through is not repeated."

The anonymous UCU member told The Times: "People had emailed the branch over Kathleen Stock saying: 'How could you do this?' This has been reframed by Jo Grady as harassment."

The LGBT committee meeting, with Grady in attendance, also warned of the need to tackle "transphobes" repeating "hostile views", in ways other than educating them — suggesting plans to force them out.

The minutes state: "Supporting branches in combating transphobia is important through education but there are a small core of people who are so entrenched in their views and the UCU needs to address this issue ... It is important to look at ways of tackling these transphobes as they put forward hostile views which make campuses very unsafe places for trans people."

The UCU whistleblower told The Times: "That passage made my blood run cold. They mean feminists, like me. There's no ambiguity — they are talking about their own members. The whole thing is just horrendous."

The UCU spokesman told The Times: "The whole of the union shared the concerns of Dr Jo Grady about how the UCU Sussex branch was being targeted by the media and others, in some cases with contact details of activists being made public, and it is entirely appropriate to offer support."

In a video message on social media, Grady accused The Times of harassing and bullying UCU Commons members after we asked them and their universities if they wished to comment. She did not address the issues raised by the leaked minutes.

This year a motion was drafted to the UCU's national conference saying the Sussex branch should be "congratulated" for its "solidarity" with the student protesters who rallied against Stock. Another motion pledged to "develop resources to support branches to oppose 'gender critics'". Both were removed before the conference after legal advice.

Jo Phoenix, 58, a criminology professor who has been researching sex, gender and justice for two decades, resigned from The Open University after being harassed for her gender-critical views and said younger academics feared speaking up.

She told The Times: "In my case, the local union did something very similar to what happened to Kathleen Stock. They sent an 'all staff' email which provided a link for an open letter to sign, calling for discrimination against me and my colleagues, and for the university to disaffiliate itself."

Phoenix said prominent UCU members referred to people who hold gender-critical beliefs as being Holocaust deniers. She believes freedom of speech is under threat on campuses because "you can torpedo someone at a university really easily".

"Academics being silenced on gender identity is a huge problem," she said. "We are the outliers — we speak out because we can. Now that we have trade unions who are prepared to sell women's rights down the river, it is devastating, terrifying and very, very sad.

"What we are seeing is a very high intolerance to academic freedom and plurality of viewpoint. People don't want to hear what they disagree with."

The UCU said it was legally unable to comment on matters involving individuals.

A spokesman for the Open University said it was a place of "open debate" where differing and difficult views can be raised, listened to and challenged appropriately.

Shereen Benjamin described herself as a "dyed-in-the-wool trade unionist" — until the union she had devoted much of her academic life to began a "witch-hunt" against her.

The senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Edinburgh terminated her UCU membership last year, accusing colleagues of targeting her for her gender-critical views.

Benjamin, 57, had first come across the gender identity debate in 2018 after standing up for Ann Henderson, the rector at the university. Henderson was abused after calling for a reasoned debate on gender recognition reforms.

Benjamin, a lesbian who was a branch officer for the UCU at the time, said: "I support the rights of trans-identifying people to live in peace, with dignity and respect. But I realised that what some people meant by 'trans rights' was an extreme and dogmatic version of gender identity politics.

"I was coming up against an impenetrable wall of: 'There is no debate, and if you say we should stand up for Ann then you too are transphobic'."

In 2019 she complained about an email thread on a union activists list which used the acronym 'Terf'. She was expelled from the mailing list by a circular email with the subject line: "F****** transphobes f*** off!!"

Benjamin went on to organise an event on women's sex-based rights at her university in June 2019.

The branch president, other branch officers and branch committee members publicly supported a counter-demonstration under the banner: 'No Terfs on our turf'.

Benjamin said: "I thought my union — to which I had contributed so much over the years — might be there for me. But there was no support from them."

Around that time, Benjamin says that advocates of no-debate on gender identity theory were co-opted onto the UCU branch committee without discussion.

In January 2021 following several incidents, including on branch social media, she put in a complaint for bullying and harassment. It took nearly a year and a half to conclude, by which time the situation within the branch had become irretrievable.

Members of her UCU branch committee submitted a retaliatory complaint against her, claiming she was creating a hostile environment for trans members and their allies, which was dismissed.

Documentation included an email in which some of the complainants had been challenged on their view that Benjamin's presence on the UCU's picket line made trans students unsafe.

Benjamin said: "The branch vice-president's written response was: 'If a clearly racist member of the union who had arranged events on eugenics or white supremacy was on that picket line, I wouldn't ask BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] students to go there."

Of the complaint, she added: "It was a witch-hunt, based on fabrications and distortions and nonsensical allegations."

Benjamin claims that last autumn she was pre-emptively banned from a workplace Stonewall workshop on account of her gender-critical views. She quit the UCU after it failed to back her challenge to Stonewall's decision.

She said: "I think it's a perfect storm in UCU. It's identity politics in place of class politics."

Benjamin believes the effect is filtering down into lecture halls, with early-career professors self-censoring in their teaching and research to avoid complaints.

She added: "Lecturers have confided in me that they are scared to teach sex and gender critically, or to prompt students to question and consider alternatives. People are intimidated.

"Academics on lower rungs of the ladder in need of promotion, and those on precarious contracts, need to steer clear of controversies and complaints. Academic freedom and freedom of expression should be front and centre of a union for academics.

"Younger academics desperately need a union that will fight for them when their views conflict with the orthodoxies of the day. Sadly, at the moment, UCU isn't that union."

The University of Edinburgh said it was committed to freedom of expression and academic freedom. It said it was the university's duty to make sure staff and students felt able to discuss controversial topics.

The UCU said it was legally unable to comment on matters involving individuals.