Inclusion, Freedom of Expression, and the Spirit of Sussex
Posted on behalf of: Professor Kevin Hylton
Last updated: Wednesday, 13 October 2021
By Professor Emeritus Kevin Hylton, Interim Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Culture, Equality and Inclusion
I am still a relative stranger to Brighton and often find in conversations with staff and students that long term relationships or cultural norms have led to approaches to change that omit crucial parts of the process that include dialogue, listening and occasionally compromise. In some cases, I have seen disruption for disruption’s sake even where I have been aware of both parties’ commitment to move toward the same goal, though in some cases the ‘together’ element has been ignored. This has led to energies squandered as barriers first have to come down before information is shared and mutual agendas understood. This should be the first steps rather than a post hoc consideration. This wonderful space at Sussex University deserves a culture of understanding while recognising that we may not all accept certain viewpoints but are open-minded enough to comprehend that we can understand them; their nuances, where we might agree and where we might not.
As a social scientist and activist scholar, I commit colleagues to use their critical faculties. As a father of three, I also find generational differences in how we discuss identities related particularly to gender, sexuality, ethnicity, class, and nation. Critical thinking often engages conflict. However, conflict is not always misplaced, illegal or negative. In seats of higher learning, we must work to challenge our own thinking while listening to others we may not agree with. It takes some discipline and levels of reflexivity to reach common ground, or even agree to disagree. Thinking more about this, there are many factors that make perspectives more palatable, persuasive, and attractive to us because they present a moral or ethical position such as our Goals for an Inclusive Sussex Equal, Diverse, Accessible, Flexible, and our Core Values Kindness, Integrity, Inclusion, Collaboration and Courage. As with any moral or ethical template there is always room for interpretation and dare I say… disagreement. Beyond the moral and ethical we have to recognise as a public organisation we must also accept the legal, regardless of how strongly we hold to our moral or ethical standpoints. Though our values help to guide our moral compass we intuitively know that others will not be moving at the same pace or in the same direction as us.
Here at the University of Sussex, I have been drawn to issues that exemplify the need for dialogue and respect for moral, ethical, and legal ramifications of working together. Racial justice has consistently emerged as an ongoing concern of staff and students. There is a strong sense of the need to progress on these matters though past experiences are affecting trust and confidence today. I have seen green shoots in structural changes though it’s people and the culture of the organisation that will make it tick.
I also mentioned in an earlier article that I had been made aware of discussions on and off campus about trans-rights and trans and non-binary-inclusion. These debates signal the tensions between philosophical, and theoretical critiques of legal and policy related issues set against a backdrop of lived experiences, directly impacting members of our community. They are real and felt examples of some of the points I have raised about understanding alternative points of view, their relative merits and where they might fall below moral, ethical, or legal standards. The background of recent debates emerged from the consultation around the process of receiving a birth certificate under the Gender Recognition Act 2004. Debates often concern terminology and whether or not 'sex' is conflated with 'gender' (reassignment and identities), the nature of acceptable ways to express beliefs about sex and gender, and acceptable levels of legal expression. In some cases inaccurate interpretations of university policy and legal instruments may potentially lead to Universities falling foul of the law.
For example, when Maya Forstater’s fellowship was not renewed by the Centre for Global Development because of her gender critical beliefs about sex and gender identity, the Employment Appeal Tribunal found that her belief that biological sex is real, important, and immutable met the legal test of a genuine and important philosophical belief to be protected under the UK’s equality laws. In reaching this decision so the Employment Appeal Tribunal found Ms Forstater’s gender-critical beliefs, were widely shared, did not seek to destroy the rights of trans persons and importantly did not get anywhere near to approaching the category of belief akin to Nazism or totalitarianism, such beliefs being excluded from protection under the law.
The Tribunal made it expressly clear that the judgment does not mean that those with gender-critical beliefs can ‘misgender’ trans persons with impunity. It stated that the Claimant, like everyone else, will continue to be subject to the prohibitions on discrimination and harassment that apply to everyone. Whether or not conduct in each situation does amount to harassment or discrimination within the meaning of the Equality Act it will be for a tribunal to determine in each case. This judgment does not mean that trans persons do not have the protections against discrimination and harassment conferred by the Equality Act. They do. Institutionally, we also have our own procedures that we may action.
Further, we are all protected from bullying and harassment under the law, our Dignity and Respect, and Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion policies. Our commitment to the Public Sector Equality Duty to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation, advance equality of opportunity, and to foster good relations underpins our approach at the University of Sussex to provide a safe environment for trans, non-binary persons and all other staff, students, and community members regardless of identity. Our new Report and Support tool ensures further opportunities for our community members to be supported and protected. If you or someone you know has experienced bullying, harassment, a hate incident, sexual violence, domestic abuse, or discrimination you can let us know.
Context, meaning and freedoms must be part of our collective considerations before taking punitive measures. It is not always easy to identify the boundary between controversial or offensive views (which are afforded legal protection) and hate speech or other very offensive communication so serious that it is not so protected. The OfS (independent regulator of higher education in England) takes the view that while we do have laws to restrict speech in some ways that prohibit harassment or incitement to hatred, we should not turn to censoring or marginalising groups to protect others. The OfS recognise the right to say things that might shock or offend while at the same time trying to facilitate a safe higher education environment. For some at the University of Sussex these positions may be experienced as working against each other.
As academics and professional services staff, we value and have a duty to promote academic freedom and freedom of expression as we encourage a necessarily diverse community with a broad range of worldviews, ideas, and life experiences. Yet, through our collective behaviours we should all value and share the duty to promote our approach to an Inclusive Sussex. Yes, we may have strong views, beliefs, or positions but how we ‘land’ them is an art in itself and something we should all strive to improve. We hope those associated with us live up to the spirit of the University of Sussex Values and Goals.
Professor Emeritus Kevin Hylton, Interim PVC Culture, Equality and Inclusion