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On a sunny autumn morning on the campus of Sussex University this week, there was little evidence of the turbulence that has engulfed the institution, its students and staff in recent days.
The leaves were turning, young people sat chatting on the lawns and benches, while sports teams assembled for practice and food stalls in front of the library served a steady trickle of customers.
For the past week, however, the campus at Falmer, on the outskirts of Brighton, has found itself at the centre of the fraught debate between trans rights campaigners and gender critical feminists.
This latest eruption of a long-running dispute began when a post appeared on social media calling on the university to sack Kathleen Stock, a philosophy professor at Sussex, who has been targeted by some trans activists for her views on sex and gender.
It featured an image of a masked campaigner on top of a University of Sussex sign, holding a banner saying “Stock Out” next to a blue flare. Elsewhere posters were put up declaring “Academic freedom doesn’t include transphobia,” and “Students have the right to protest Stock. It’s our safety on the line”.
By the time the Guardian visited on Wednesday morning, the posters had gone, scrubbed off before they could be widely seen, but they had already triggered a social media feeding frenzy far beyond the rolling hills of the South Downs, with statements, counter-statements and hundreds of column inches.
Prominent voices, including the universities minister Michelle Donelan and Sussex vice-chancellor Adam Tickell have spoken up in defence of Stock, stressing the importance of academic freedom and everyone’s right to be free of intimidation or harassment, while Labour too has become embroiled.
The local branch of the University and College Union, which represents staff, called for an investigation into institutional transphobia at Sussex, prompting Stock to accuse the UCU of “effectively ending” her career at Sussex.
On campus, some students said they did not want to talk, reluctant to enter the fray, those who did wanted to remain anonymous, but virtually everyone the Guardian approached was aware of the row .
Only one young woman, walking through the students’ union, asked: “Who’s Kathleen Stock?”
Of those who were willing to talk, all were supportive of the trans community at Sussex and were concerned about trans students feeling unsafe. Some admitted they did not know enough about the arguments involved.
“I’d seen people from home posting about it on Instagram,” one first year philosophy student said.
“At first I didn’t know it was our university. I feel like everyone’s a bit angry, but I think it’s a group of people rather than the whole campus. It’s not as intense as you think it would be. I keep saying to myself I’m going to learn more about it. I don’t really know that much.”
Others were concerned that trans students will have chosen to come to Sussex because of its radical history and its location in Brighton, often described as the LGBTQ capital of the UK, only to arrive and feel unsafe.
“I just feel everyone has a right to feel safe whoever they are,” one said.
Stock, who denies being transphobic, researches philosophical questions about sex, gender, and sexual orientation, and has said she believes gender identity is not more important than biological sex, “particularly when it comes to law and policy”, and that people cannot change their biological sex.
“People are annoyed because Stock’s being paid to research about that here, when it makes other people feel uncomfortable,” said a first-year student. “I know some people want her out,” said another. “I would rather the university explain why she should be here a lot better. I’m never going to be as angry as someone who is transgender. But there are obviously people who are going to be majorly affected.”
Stock told the Sunday Times she has been advised by police to install CCTV at her home and to stay away from Sussex’s campus.
“I know they are trying to protect her,” said another student. “But surely they should be trying to protect students. For her it’s her line of work, it’s her career. She gets paid to be here. We are paying to be here. To pay nine grand a year, people deserve to feel safe and accepted.”
This view was echoed by others. “A university’s first priority should be the safety and wellbeing of their students,” said a second-year student. “They’re the ones paying £9,250.”
Some felt the protest had been misrepresented. “The media have blown it out of proportion, like there’s mobs of students running around the university,” said the same second year student. “There were just posters around campus and a very peaceful protest. There was no violence of any kind.”
Amelia Jones, trans and non-binary students’ officer, said an investigation into institutional transphobia at Sussex would be a good step forward and called on the university to engage in a dialogue with trans students, adding: “Vice-chancellor Adam Tickell has still not met to my knowledge a single trans or non-binary student to see how the ongoing situation is affecting them.”
Other views, meanwhile, were shared at a debate on Thursday organised by Liberate the Debate, a student free speech society at Sussex and addressed by Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas thinktank, who later told Stock on Twitter, “you have some passionate allies among @SussexUni student body”.
Hundreds of other academics have also come out in support of Stock. They say the attacks on her are a “pernicious erosion of academic freedom.”
Stock also won support from a group of trans people who wrote a letter to the Times earlier this week. They said they were “appalled that trans rights – our rights – are being used to excuse an unprincipled campaign of harassment and abuse.”
Two postgraduates enjoying their lunch in the sun pointed to a generational divide in the debate. “You can’t expect everyone to agree with radical feminist views, because it’s so outdated,” one said.
For the university management, it’s a nightmare. They came back this term hoping to get back to some sort of normality after the disruption of Covid only to find themselves at the centre of one of the most contentious debates of the day.
David Ruebain, pro-vice-chancellor for culture, equalities and inclusion at Sussex, is just two weeks into his new role and is the person charged with helping the university negotiate a path through this thorny issue.
Making his first comment, Ruebain warned it could not be treated as a zero-sum game. “The university has a responsibility to support the fundamental principle of academic freedom, continue to progress our work on equality, diversity and inclusion, and act firmly and promptly in response to bullying and harassment of anyone in our community, whether they be staff or students.
“Any contested issue of equality and inclusion can never be resolved by treating it as a ‘zero-sum game’; this is especially so for a values-led organisation and we have to find ways of coming together no matter how hard it gets, or how public the issue.”
It’s an issue that is not going away anytime soon, at Sussex or elsewhere. A demonstration of trans solidarity is planned on campus for Saturday with organisers advising protesters to conceal their identity and “bring signs, make noise, look after each other.”