It's about academic integrity, not academic freedom

This post follows the recent news that Holly Lawford-Smith, an academic at the University of Melbourne, put up a website designed to elicit stories about negative interactions with trans women in women's spaces. This caused quite a kerfuffle, including an open letter to the University of Melbourne, which I signed. I'm writing this post because I'm afraid the vitriol of the discourse is obscuring the reasons for our concern, and I wanted to clarify where I am coming from. Please note that I am speaking for myself alone here and am making no claim to represent the University of Melbourne, the writers or other signers of the open letter, or other transgender people.

What was your involvement in this whole situation?

I didn't have anything to do with drafting the open letter, and I haven't been privy to anything going on behind the scenes. I did amplify the initial reports about the website on twitter, where I encouraged people to submit positive stories to it, report the website as an ethical violation, or sign the letter, but that's the extent of my involvement. That said, I am an Associate Professor at the same institution as Lawford-Smith (albeit in a different Faculty) and I am transgender myself (albeit a transgender man rather than a trans woman, hence not the immediate direct target of the website). Because of these things – and because I have seen the hurt caused to myself as well as the more vulnerable members of the trans community – I am not a disinterested observer. I think this website and Lawford-Smith's actions cause real harms. Moreover, the “academic freedom” argument is specious and does not apply here, as I elaborate on below.

Why are you so concerned about the situation?

Things like this hurt a very vulnerable population – trans people, especially trans women, and especially trans students at the University of Melbourne. I am talking about real harms, not us being the special snowflakes who can't handle disagreement that we are sometimes caricatured as. To understand why, there is a bunch of background and context I have to give you that you might not already be aware of.

Being trans is hard. We already know that a lot of people, very often our own families or loved ones or leaders or mentors, think we are delusional or dangerous; telling us so is not telling us anything we are not already aware of. Most trans people have thought far more about gender than any cis person and spend years marinating in this stuff, trying to convince ourselves that we are not actually trans, because we do not want to face the possibility that it might be true about ourselves. The statistics regarding transgender people are incredibly grim, whether you look at health, homelessness, assault, discrimination, abuse, death, or whatever. This is not something that we choose nor is coming out something anybody does lightly in order to gain imaginary societal benefits or access to a different set of bathrooms. The mere suggestion that it is (which Lawford-Smith and other “gender critical (GC) people” such as herself constantly make) is laughable. Indeed, it is so laughable and so far removed from the trans experience that it alone shows that they either have no idea what they are talking about, or are not making this suggestion in good faith.

I also want to expand a bit about Holly Lawford-Smith, the academic here at the University of Melbourne at the center of the controversy, because understanding her is key background you need in order to understand the situation. Her research program is focused around, among other things, arguing that trans women aren't women and therefore should not be allowed to do things like go into public bathrooms for women. This is ridiculous on its face for several reasons. First, speaking as somebody who actually studies human categorisation rather than just opines philosophically about it, the intellectual arguments regarding the definition of ‘woman’ are not only silly, they are irrelevant. (That's a long article in itself, but I talk a little about why in a blog post I made once here).

Second, the proposed solution – of making people to go to bathrooms based on their assigned gender at birth or their “biological sex” – would only make the problem they say they are scared about even worse. GCs fear that allowing trans women into bathrooms or women's spaces would make them unsafe for women, because then either the trans women themselves or cis men pretending to be trans could enter the bathrooms and assault them. This makes no sense for multiple reasons. First, trans women are far, far more likely to be assaulted than to assault. Second, it's not like men are lacking access to women or find it difficult to assault women. Assaults occur depressingly often, and if men are not allowed to go into the bathroom they easily can (and do!) just lay in wait outside the door. Or, you know, they could just go in; if they're already breaking the law to assault someone it seems risible to think that a door and another law is going to stop them. Finally, and most importantly, the proposed solution would not solve the issue. The “solution” involves requiring people to go to the bathroom that matches their assigned gender at birth, which means that people who look and act exactly like cis men – that is, trans men like myself – would be forced to use the women's bathroom. Cis men who for whatever reason wanted to assault a woman in the bathroom would be cheering for the legislation the GCs want to implement. They wouldn't even have to dress up as a woman! They could just go into the bathroom, say they were a trans man, and have at it. The fact that this is not a concern to the GCs shows, again, that either they have not given their proposed solution any thought (despite building a career around this) or, more likely, that fear of women getting assaulted in bathrooms is not really what is driving them.

I went into all of that detail because this is the background that myself, other trans people, and our cisgendered allies – who often know and love trans people and have seen firsthand what we have to deal with – are bringing into this situation and why we are so concerned. Trans people are very vulnerable, receive a huge amount of discrimination and hatred, and Holly Lawford-Smith's work involves arguing that we are delusional and dangerous. Moreover, she argues for policies that would increase our vulnerability: for instance, requiring trans women to use the men's restroom is a recipe for increasing the assault rates against trans women.

There are two things in the open letter: one about the website, and one about a course she teaches. I primarily got involved regarding the website, so I'll mainly be talking about that, though some of my points apply to the classroom issue too. Anyway, the website asks for anonymous submissions regarding the negative impact “on women of men using women-only spaces.” Given the context of Lawford-Smith's professional work and the fact that the first sentence of the website says “in Australia and around the world, legislation is being introduced that replaces sex with gender identity” it is very clearly about trans women (who they refer to as men). This website is not research.1 It obviously did not go through any ethical approval process; there is no consent form, no explanation of risks and benefits, no official approval number. Moreover, it is not scientifically valid, so even as an information-gathering exercise it is useless: there is no effort to gather a representative sample and no way to verify the truth of any of the stories submitted. All of the “stories” could be utterly false and they would have no way of knowing. Not only that, all of the submissions must be approved by the moderator, and the only ones that make it through are anti-trans.2 Again, this is not research, so the principles of academic freedom do not apply here. It is a crowd-sourced hate site.

The damage I am concerned about is twofold. First, I have no doubt that these stories – which may not even be true – will be used in service of the agenda of the “gender critical” crowd, to be used as evidence that trans women are dangerous and should not be allowed in women's spaces. This will happen because this is Lawford-Smith's agenda and she has gone on record stating that this is her plan. The stories will gain this legitimacy (despite the fact that the information is biased and invalid) by virtue of Lawford-Smith's status as a professor and her association with the University of Melbourne. Second, even if the stories are not used to justify policy that is directly harmful to trans people – though I'm sure they will be – they can be read by anybody, including an average person who doesn't know about trans people but has an open mind and just wants to learn. What will that person conclude when they read a bunch of biased stories (possibly lies, but not labelled as such) from a site that looks legitimate, since it belongs to a professor at a reputed university? They will conclude that the stories are true, that trans women are dangerous, that (as she claims) trans people are deluded about their own identity, that trans people are conniving and frightening. Believing that, they will be more likely to harass trans people, argue for their rights to be curtailed, be scared of them, discriminate against them, doubt their sincerity or sanity, and assuault them. Again, these are real harms. This is not just an abstract academic argument.

And what of the impact on Lawford-Smith's students? They might be trans or gender questioning, or have friends or loved ones who are. Here is a professor, somebody they are told they should respect, saying in not-uncertain terms that they (or people who they love) are delusional and dangerous. This is a terrible environment for learning, a terrible environment for growing and becoming an adult, a terrible environment for anybody. It is an emotionally abusive situation. It is not equivalent to having to deal with a professor who has a different point of view than you on, say, trickle-down economics or Bayesian statistics. It is a person of authority telling you that you as a person are wrong and bad, with the weight of institutional power apparently behind them.

What you want the university to do?

If it is in the university's power, I would like them to make Lawford-Smith take the website down (and, needless to say, to keep it down and not put something similar up).3 If it is not, I would like them to – minimally – issue a statement very strongly condemning it and the ideas behind it, stating the only reason they haven't made her take it down is that they can't. I would like them to also remove her from positions where she can hurt students. Whether this means removing her from her teaching or requiring her to (minimally) remove the anti-trans content from the curriculum, I'm not going to take a strong stand on. But right now, she is harming people, and I would like the University of Melbourne to do whatever it can to mitigate those harms.4 This should include making it very clear that trans and gender diverse people at the uni have the right to use all of the spaces for the gender to which they identify, and making it clear what resources are in place to ensure the safety of people in the trans community on campus.

(I'm going to add the caveat here that the University of Melbourne has been unfailingly supportive to me in my transition. Everyone, from close colleagues to my supervisors to random people who had to change my name in the system, has been amazing. I know that the university can support trans people, because they have done so for me. I hope that this extends to people who are far more vulnerable than me and that they support us even when it is not easy to do so).

What are your thoughts on upholding academic freedom, even for controversial viewpoints?

I think academic freedom is a great thing, but academic integrity is very important too and tends to be lost in these discussions. With freedom comes responsibility, as they say, and as an academic I take my responsibilities seriously. Those responsibilities include things like: (a) doing my best to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; (b) approaching my research with an open mind and designing studies in such a way that the data could actually change my mind; and (c) taking seriously the duty of care I have as a teacher and mentor to my students and mentees.

Lawford-Smith has violated all of these principles. As I explained before, her agenda radically misrepresents very important aspects of the trans experience and the threat posed by trans women. Her website follows none of the principles required for research, either scientifically or ethically. As such, “academic freedom” does not apply. Academic freedom is meant to protect actual legitimate research, not the scientifically invalid and ethically abhorrent agenda of a private individual. Instead, we should think about our academic integrity and academic standards. Lawford-Smith's conduct falls woefully short on both counts.

Finally, our academic standards – our academic integrity – also requires taking seriously our duty of care to our students. This means we should not do things like tell them their identity is invalid, argue against the rights that permit them to live in public space, and require them to absorb material implying or stating that they are delusional or dangerous. Again, this is not an academic freedom issue, nor is it a simple difference of opinion. It is somebody in authority telling somebody they are responsible for that who they are as a person is wrong. Teachers do not have the right to hurt their students under the guise of “academic freedom.”

  1. I want to point out here that Lawford-Smith and the gender critical crowd are trying a very sneaky rhetorical trick here. Because of the points I make above – the lack of ethical oversight and so forth – they are careful to say on the website that it is not set up for research. Yet if that's the case, then academic freedom is irrelevant. Moreover, if these stories are not valid research then it is not legitimate to use them to try to justify policy changes, as Lawford-Smith has gone on record stating she aims to do. This is a classic rhetorical trick known as the motte and bailey. They are trying to claim the academic protections that are meant to apply only to academic research, but crying out that it's not research when we point out that it does not reach the ethical or scientific standards expected of research. Please do not fall for it. ↩︎

  2. I know this because I and many others submitted many positive stories, and none have been published. Keep in mind also that some people submitted automated spam. The reason I mention this is not only to illustrate the bias of the moderator – publishing only negative stories – but because any numbers they report about how many submissions they have received include the positive stories and spam as well. If they only publish a fraction of the reported number of submissions, that's pretty interesting, don't you think? ↩︎

  3. Is this “silencing women”, as they claim? Well, I don't know, according to them I am a woman and it sure sounds to me like they are trying to silence me! Okay, that was a bit of a tongue-in-cheek joke. But more seriously, no, I am not trying to silence them. Lawford-Smith and her gender critical friends can talk on social media and write whatever articles they want, if private companies want to host them and publications want to publish them. What I am arguing they should not be able to do is leverage the prestige of the university to be able to gather “stories” of dubious authenticity and then use them to curtail the rights of others. Nor should they be able to teach their personal opinions and misinformation as fact, especially not when doing so is harmful to vulnerable students. As a teacher I am often told what I can and cannot teach, thanks to accreditation and curriculum requirements; this is no different than that. ↩︎

  4. It should go without saying but I will say anyway that what I do not want to see is personal threats or abuse directed toward Lawford-Smith. Her actions are hurtful, but hurting her does not erase our hurt. My only goal here is to minimise the harm she is doing. ↩︎

Andrew Perfors
Associate Professor

I seek to understand how people reason and think, both on their own and in groups.