Dr Shereen Benjamin, a senior lecturer in primary education at the University of Edinburgh, has been compared to a eugenicist and a white supremacist. Complaints have been made about her classes. A speaker at a panel debate she organized was attacked by a protester.
Benjamin, in her late fifties, has spoken about the need to protect women-only spaces such as refuges, prisons and hospital wards. Her views brought her into conflict with students and staff who saw her opinions as transphobic.
“The time leading up to that panel discussion was the most difficult four weeks of my working life. I had been called a bigot. I had no right of reply,” she said.
She prefers to work quietly, but last weekend she was one of 200 academics from prestigious universities speaking out about the abuse they face on campus.
Academics from top universities told of how they have faced death threats, masked protesters and petitions calling for their research to be shut down.
They have been stopped from talking at events — “no-platforming” — and been trolled viciously on social media. In some cases they have needed security in lectures. The backlash has been caused by a debate on transgender rights.
In a letter in The Sunday Times recently, signed by figures including the Cambridge economist Sir Partha Dasgupta and physicist Sir Michael Pepper, they warn: “Universities are creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating and offensive environment for staff and students.” They say that university leaders “lack the courage or capacity” to address the attack on freedom of speech.
The academics want the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to carry out a review of UK universities, where they say policies are discriminating against certain unpopular beliefs.
Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at Sussex University, made headlines after protesters called for her to be sacked for her opinions on transgender rights. She faced death threats; police advised her to bring security on campus.
In some cases they have needed security in lectures.
The letter says that 80 similar reports have been made of “bullying, harassment and no-platforming” over the past five years. The allegations span Cambridge, Bristol, Durham and University College London.
Selina Todd, professor of modern history at Oxford, is a signatory. She says she has faced “harassment and intimidation” since 2018, when she suggested the explosion of interest in being transgender was a modern phenomenon. She was described as not a “fit person to teach students”.
When she was due to speak at a university about her book on Shelagh Delaney, a working-class female playwright, a letter was signed by academics and students saying she should not speak because her research was likely to be “transphobic”.
“It’s deeply unpleasant having one’s reputation and research constantly smeared and undermined and knowing that one cannot expect full and vocal support from one’s employer and colleagues,” she said. “When a professor of philosophy cannot go to work and do her job, the situation is beyond critical. It is an emergency. I don’t say that lightly.”
Alice Sullivan, a professor of sociology at University College London, said it was vital that the EHRC intervened. “There are other contentious issues such as Israel and Palestine, and the decolonization agenda [including the debate over toppling statues], and we need to be able to discuss them all openly.”
Jo Phoenix, 57, a professor of criminology, is preparing to launch a test case at an employment tribunal against the Open University for allegedly failing to protect her from a “public campaign of harassment that has made my working life unbearable”. She went on sick leave with PTSD this year after 360 of her colleagues signed a petition trying to shut down her research network. She had previously received a flyer with the image of a gun and the words: “Shut the F*** up.”
In the letter, the academics tell of a “culture of fear” on UK campuses.
Dasgupta, an emeritus professor of economics who teaches at Cambridge, said: “When I entered academic life [in the early 1970s] the thought never crossed my mind that certain topics were out of bounds. There is today in UK universities even an attempt to regulate thought, not just speech and the written word. And we criticize authoritarian regimes elsewhere for suppressing thought. Robust discourse is at the heart of academic life.”
The uprising comes after Stock expressed a view that people could not change biological sex.
The opinion is shared by Phoenix, who today waives her right to anonymity to reveal that she was raped aged 15. She says the experience informs her view on why transgender men should not be able to serve sentences in women’s prisons.
She is part of the UK’s first gender critical research network, which studies issues surrounding whether women can become men and vice versa with eight other academics including Stock.
She had previously received a flyer with the image of a gun and the words: “Shut the F*** up.”
Within days of setting up the network, some of the academics were threatened on social media. One tweet said: “I have only two words for these people: Cyan-ide.” In a follow-up post, the person said they were “advocating murder”.
Phoenix said: “What’s happening to me has broken my heart. I have been silenced and shunned within my department. I have been made to feel like a pariah and have become very ill.”
Emma Hilton, 44, is a biologist at Manchester University who has researched how to ensure fairness if trans women are allowed to compete in female sports. Recently she was disinvited from giving a talk at a student society at a London university. She has also received hate messages and threats on social media, including emojis featuring guns.
At Bristol, Raquel Rosario Sánchez, a 31-year-old researcher in women and violence, is threatening to take the university to court. She made a complaint of bullying against a transgender student and said she faced abuse and “masked protesters” when she attended complaint hearings to give evidence. “Most people who are subject to abuse by trans activists stay silent, because if you file a complaint you undergo the campaign of threats I have experienced,” she said.
The university took more than a year to investigate. No disciplinary action resulted. “I want a legal judgment from a court that could serve as a deterrent to all universities that the hounding of feminists in academia is unacceptable and unlawful,” she said.
MPs are debating a law making it easier for academics and speakers to take action against universities if they are gagged from expressing controversial opinions or carrying out unpopular research.
At Cambridge, Arif Ahmed, a professor of philosophy, said: “If unchecked, these attacks on academic freedom could undermine liberty in this country.”
The Open University declined to comment. Oxford University said it was committed to freedom of speech. Bristol University said it was “committed to freedom of speech and to the rights of students and staff to discuss difficult and sensitive topics”. Edinburgh said it was committed to “facilitating an environment where all are able to inquire, study and debate”.
Sian Griffiths is the education-and-families editor for The Sunday Times of London