Academics condemn ‘threats’ against Oxford Union in Kathleen Stock row

A group of Oxford academics claim “coercion and financial threats” are being used to force the Oxford Union debating club to cancel an appearance by Kathleen Stock.

Stock, a former university lecturer who argues that transgender people cannot expect all the rights afforded by biological sex, is due to speak at the Oxford Union later this month. Her appearance is opposed by several LGBTQ+ groups and student organisations in the city.

In a letter published in the Daily Telegraph, the group of academics said they “wholeheartedly condemn” a decision by the Oxford University student union (OUSU) to bar the Oxford Union from having a stall at the university’s freshers fair, which the group say is an attempt to cut the Oxford Union off from recruiting new members as a result of the invitation to Stock.

“This is dangerous territory. Universities exist, among other things, to promote free inquiry and the disinterested pursuit of the truth by means of reasoned argument. To resort to coercion and financial threats when unable to secure one’s preferred outcome in debate would represent a profound failure to live up to these ideals,” the letter states.

The 45 signatories include the author Richard Dawkins; Timothy Williamson, the university’s Wykeham professor of logic; Nigel Biggar, a professor of theology; and Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.

OUSU said its decision was unconnected to Stock’s appearance and that the motion passed by its student council related to “longstanding” concerns about student welfare.

“The motion was unrelated to Dr Stock’s intended talk. It did not mention Dr Stock or any other speaker at the Oxford Union, instead citing longstanding concerns relating to alleged bullying, sexual harassment, discrimination and data privacy breaches which affect students,” it said.

“The motion was democratically passed at a meeting of students, following a debate which also did not mention Dr Stock. We are committed to freedom of expression and freedom of speech and will defend the right of people to have controversial and unpopular ideas debated as an integral part of university life and the student experience.”

The Oxford Union is a private club, independent of the university, and bills itself as “the world’s most prestigious speaker and debating society”, with a 200-year record of debating controversial topics and inviting high-profile speakers. It relies on donations and corporate support as well as membership fees paid by current students of nearly £300.

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Since the 1980s, the union has been an incubator for Conservative politicians, with Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Michael Gove among those elected to the union’s governing body during their student days at Oxford.

Matthew Dick, the Oxford Union’s current president, said he was not sure what the financial implications of the OUSU’s decision would be. “We existed for nearly 150 years before the university’s student union was created, and I believe we will be here after them as well,” Dick told the Oxford Mail.

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