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Dispatches on academic freedom

Academic freedom, scholarly responsibility and the new gender wars

Issues around gender identity, and transgender and nonbinary people have become a battleground for academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus.


The other day, I had occasion to search the word “pronoun” on The Conversation website to see what stories about pronouns they had published. You might expect just one or two dry stories about grammar, but in fact, the term produced tons of hits, many of them about campus free speech and academic freedom. This is because of the frequency with which non-binary pronouns are discussed in connection with academic freedom and free expression.

Much of the commotion comes from my own discipline of philosophy.

The first big flare-up in philosophy was in 2017 and concerned the publication by Hypatia of an article by Rhodes College assistant professor Rebecca Tuvel that drew an analogy between transgenderism and racial transition (“transracialism”). The article received enormous pushback. On social media, much abuse was flung, in all directions. The controversy ultimately led to the dissolution of Hypatia’s editorial board and a serious retool for the journal.

For the last year or so, there has been a second social media flame war ongoing between transfeminist philosophers and their allies, and self-described “gender critical” feminist (hereafter, GCF) philosophers. It started with an issue of the journal Philosophy and Phenomenological Research that featured articles by philosophers Jason Stanley (Yale) and Rachel McKinnon (Charleston); both articles used the term “TERF” (an acronym for “trans-exclusionary radical feminist”). Seven GCF philosophers published a response on the influential disciplinary blog, Daily Nous, in which they argued that TERF is a slur and ought not to be used in scholarly journals. Other blogs and big-name figures got involved, and soon everyone was fighting each other and blocking each other on Facebook and Twitter.

Then, 3:AM Magazine published an interview with Melbourne philosopher Holly Lawford-Smith, the lead author of the Daily Nous response. After a social media hue and cry complaining about the approach the interview took, 3:AM pulled the interview. Again, all hell broke lose, and a long-time editor resigned from his position.

Since then, the aggressive social media battle has continued unabated, often with graduate students and untenured colleagues caught in the crossfire – or worse, targeted in the crosshairs, sometimes by very powerful senior professors.

In the latest round of philosophy’s gender wars, academic freedom is being specifically invoked and centred. In an open letter to the Sunday Times last month, 30 GCF British academics, many of them philosophers, argued that certain institutional trans-inclusionary policies threaten academic freedom. After 3,600 other British academics published a letter in the Independent rebutting the GCF letter’s arguments, GCF philosopher Kathleen Stock (Sussex), one of the original 30 signatories, responded with a long opinion piece in Quillette further elaborating the ways in which she regards GCF scholars’ academic freedom as under threat. Hard on the heels of that piece, 12 philosophers (under the byline “Twelve Leading Scholars”) published a column in Inside Higher Ed affirming support for the academic freedom of GCF scholars. (NOTE: I am a co-author and co-signatory to a recently published response to the Inside Higher Ed piece. You can read it here).

It isn’t only philosophers, of course. University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson first shot to media attention when he (erroneously) charged that Bill C-16 (which added “gender identity” to the Human Rights Code and Criminal Code as a protected category) would lead to people going to jail for refusing to use non-binary pronouns. Campus protests erupted; they were met in turn by pro-free speech counter protests.

A year later, then-Wilfrid Laurier University graduate student Lindsay Shepherd made the international news when, in tutorials she was leading, she played a clip of Dr. Peterson discussing his perspective on the pronoun issue and was taken to task for doing so by some WLU faculty and staff. Ms. Shepherd’s supporters charged that the TA’s free speech had been violated. The university formed a freedom of expression task force that ultimately produced a new freedom of expression statement for the institution.

Last year, Brown University public health professor Lisa Littman advanced the concept of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” in a controversial paper, published in PLoS/ONE. There was immediate criticism by trans allies of the study’s methodology, leading PloS/ONE to review the study, and to issue a correction and apology. In the interim between the initial publication and the correction, much ink was spilled on both sides. Significantly, Brown University itself issued a series of communications in which they sought to affirm support for both academic freedom and the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) community.

What makes all of this about academic freedom and freedom of expression? In broad strokes, on one side, some people argue that Dr. Tuvel, GCF philosophers, Dr. Peterson, Ms. Shepherd, and Dr. Littman have experienced inappropriate limitations on their academic and expressive freedom because they have run afoul of a now dominant orthodoxy about gender and gender identity. On the other side, trans feminists and trans allies urge that Dr. Tuvel et al are not exercising the scholarly responsibility that forms a crucial part of academic freedom.

Here are some of the ways in which, it is claimed, the academic and expressive freedoms of those who don’t toe the gender line are limited:

  • retractions of, or calls to retract, their scholarship
  • calls to terminate their employment
  • loss of positions in journals and professional associations
  • fewer invitations to give talks or participate in events
  • disinvitations from, or calls to disinvite them from, speaking engagements
  • various forms of social ostracization, both in person and online
  • protests of their participation in events
  • constraints on professors’ freedom to teach imposed by trans-inclusive policies

In order to assess whether their academic freedom has been compromised, it is worth reminding ourselves of what academic freedom does and doesn’t do. In brief, academic freedom does protect scholars from institutional penalties for their controversial scholarship or their exercise of controversial speech. However, academic freedom does not shelter scholars from reasonable protest, vigourous disagreement from other scholars or from the public, or from social ostracization. In a nutshell, your university can’t fire or expel you for doing controversial work, but academic freedom can’t (and shouldn’t) force people to agree with you or be your friend. Similarly, academic freedom in general protects scholars from disinvitations, but it cannot force anyone to invite a controversial speaker to give a talk in the first place.

Both employment termination and disinvitation of a scholarly speaker by a university are indeed academic freedom violations. I am not aware of any cases in which a faculty member has been terminated from a professorial position or disinvited by a university from giving a talk because of their “gender critical” perspectives. But such a case would indeed constitute a violation of academic freedom.

There are periodic demands by the public for such things, of course. But academic freedom is about formal institutional protections, and not about what the public urges universities to do. The public often demands that professors be fired. That’s frustrating and scary, but it’s not a violation of academic freedom because the public is not charged with protecting scholars’ academic freedom. The academic freedom violation occurs not when the public demands some punishment or other, but when the university accedes to the demand and metes the punishment out.

As to loss of positions with journals or in scholarly associations, some administrative roles are not protected by academic freedom. A dean, for instance, has less academic freedom than a rank-and-file professor because the dean’s decanal (as opposed to professorial) responsibilities concern not only scholarship but also such things as administration and representing the university. Some other service roles over and above one’s main professorial appointment are also like this.

Article retractions happen all the time in academia. You can read about them at Retraction Watch. It would be extremely worrisome if an article were retracted solely because it took a controversial perspective. However, the retractions that Retraction Watch records are rather retractions owing to bad methods or bad data. This is the responsibility side of academic freedom. Both scholars themselves and scholarly venues have a duty to maintain appropriate scholarly standards, according to the norms of the discipline or sub-discipline.

While neither Dr. Tuvel’s nor Dr. Littman’s papers were ultimately retracted, the calls to retract them were grounded in methodological criticisms, as were the revisions that were published. When editors receive credible reports that bad methods may have compromised the quality of one of their publications, it behooves them to double check. That process can result in retraction, revisions, or no change at all to the publication.

While considering the scholarly responsibility that attaches to academic freedom, it is worth observing that in most of the cases I listed above, the scholars in question were charged with failing to do due diligence and review the existing literature and methods in the areas they were writing or talking about. Dr. Tuvel’s article analogized race and gender but barely touched on critical race theory or the wealth of transfeminist scholarship about transitioning. Dr. Lawford-Smith, Dr. Stock et al seem not to have familiarized themselves with the extensive philosophical literature on gender before weighing in on trans issues. Dr. Peterson, a psychologist, offered a legal opinion that was breath-takingly innocent of case law, and so on. In the balance between academic freedom and scholarly responsibility, these colleagues didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.

What about the claim – elaborated most fully in Dr. Stock’s Quillette column – that trans-inclusive institutional policies can constrain professors’ freedom to teach?

I think the answer here is mixed. Certainly, no one should mispronoun a non-binary person simply because they (the speaker) have adopted the scholarly view that there are only two genders. But there is an easy workaround. If, for some reason, I refuse to say “they”, then when engaging with a student who uses that pronoun, I can simply use their name instead.

But imagine an instructor whose expertise is in issues related to prisons and incarceration. Now imagine that, as is the case with many British GCF philosophers, the instructor believes that trans women in women’s prisons pose an unacceptable threat to the safety of inmates in those prisons. (For the record, I deny this view.) Does academic freedom permit that instructor to discuss this issue in the classroom? I think that it does.

Now, that’s bad news for trans students in the class. I don’t say this lightly. A classroom in which such ideas are taught is an inhospitable learning environment for trans students, in a world that is already plenty inhospitable for them. Not all of the costs of academic freedom are borne by faculty themselves. Responsible colleagues therefore attune themselves to power differentials that render students vulnerable, and seek to cultivate supportive learning environments. But universities can’t force them to do this.

The pay-off, though, of defending GCFs in cases like the above is that by the very same principle we defend other controversial scholarship, including emerging scholarly areas like transgender studies or critical race studies. And areas like these help to create more supportive learning environments for minoritized students.

That said, if the GCF’s course is on statistical methods rather than carceral systems, and yet they devote significant class time to the question of where trans women should serve their prison sentences, then the chair may quite reasonably step in and tell them to teach the topic of the course the students enrolled in.

I have devoted considerable space here to the question of whether GCFs, etc. in fact face significant academic freedom constraints because I wished to show that when we engage the question on its merits, the academic freedom worries are overblown.

That said, as an AAUP statement released late last year makes clear, there are genuine threats to academic freedom in the worldwide state attacks on gender studies that are currently underway. It is important not to allow social media flame wars to distract us from this serious matter.

I’d like to conclude by noticing both the rhetorical use to which academic freedom is being put in the latest kerfuffle, and to share a caution from a wise trans colleague.

First, the rhetoric: in the IHE piece, “Twelve Leading Scholars,” most of whom do not work on gender, accept the unexamined claim that GCFs are subject to unusual academic freedom violations. They then acknowledge that some “philosophical arguments can lead to pain, anxiety and frustration” but urge that sex and gender be researched in a “collegial and mutually respectful manner.” They “condemn the too frequently cruel and abusive rhetoric, including accusations of hatred or transphobia, directed at these philosophers in response to their arguments and advocacy,” but fail to condemn the cruel and abusive rhetoric that is directed at trans philosophers. The message is clear: GCFs are the victims here. The letter says nothing about the ways in which trans scholars continue to be excluded, marginalized, and discriminated against within the discipline and academe more generally. To participate in the discipline, the letter seems to suggest, trans philosophers need to get used to pain, anxiety and frustration. But the cruel and abusive rhetoric against GCFs is beyond the pale. This “mutual respect” is surprisingly asymmetrical.

And now for the caution. I reached out to U of T physics prof and trans advocate A.W. Peet (who will not agree with everything I’ve written above) to see if they had any advice for me as I wrote this column. I’ll give them the last word:

[Despite the focus on pronouns,] transphobia is primarily directed at trans women, and secondarily at nonbinary people. The focus of our support should be trans women first and foremost.


The pronouns issue is to some extent a diversionary tactic. [We get tied] up in knots arguing about linquistic prescriptivism while living trans people are denied material necessities of life like health care, housing, and employment. [It is important to] proactively ensure that trans people from undergrads to untenured faculty can actually survive and thrive on your campus…


Shannon Dea
Shannon Dea is the dean of arts and a professor of philosophy at the University of Regina.
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  1. Avalonian / August 2, 2019 at 18:18

    This article conveniently leaves out the incidents which led to the 12-signatory letter being written: a published (anonymous) essay calling for total no-platforming of Stock, followed by a letter from Minorities in Philosophy UK questioning Stock’s right to speak at the Aristotelian Society conference. That is, it leaves out the very threats to Stock’s academic freedom that provoked much of this mess.

    It also conveniently leaves out the fact that Peterson received a letter (which you are free to read online) from U of T admins which stated, unequivocally, that his position on pronouns could easily be in violation of the new Human Rights Code. The letter reads: “…in view of these impacts, as well as the requirements of the Ontario Human Rights Code, we urge you to stop repeating these statements”.

    People, some of them feminists, are responding to perceived threats. You may be right that the threats are overblown. But surely it behooves you to at least acknowledge the events which lead people to believe, with some reason, that their academic freedom is under attack.

  2. Dr. Miroslav Imbrisevic / August 6, 2019 at 17:33

    You write: ‘Now imagine that, as is the case with many British GCF philosophers, the instructor believes that trans women in women’s prisons pose an unacceptable threat to the safety of inmates in those prisons. (For the record, I deny this view.)’. There is evidence to the contrary from UK prisons:

  3. Robin Tropper / August 7, 2019 at 19:49

    Dr. Peterson was completely right when predicting C-16 can lead to imprisonment: he explained this is an indirect effect (in his example, by refusing to pay a fine for misgendering someone). This is further evidenced by a B.C. man who faces severe legal penalty for doing nothing more than protecting his 14 year old son from predatory gender identity activists during a very confusing time in life. What will happen if this father continues to speak about the issue in public, do you think?

  4. Dr. Charo / August 8, 2019 at 09:21

    One single trans women poses a threat within this one prison in England… and your conclusion is that Dr. Dea’s opinion is completely wrong? Certainly every case is unique to some degree – and yes, your example goes against Dea’s opinion. I would argue, however, that we need a lot move than a single incident before we pretend that it is a pattern. Are trans women in general a threat to other female inmates? I’ll need to see a lot more evidence before siding with with the TERFs and making such a damaging and discriminatory statement.

  5. Dr. Charo / August 8, 2019 at 09:27

    Wow… we are ignoring a lot of context in order to construct support for Peterson. It is clear from your link that the courts are focused on what is best for the child, and is attempting to protect that child from their transphobic father. The father isn’t a victim of C-16, but rather has been proven to be unaccepting of the child’s needs as well as fighting the rights of the mother in protecting the child’s best interest.