October 4, 2023 - 4:35pm

The perceived conflict between free speech and inclusion was put back on the news agenda yesterday, courtesy of the Annual Oration by the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Professor Irene Tracey. After some seasonal musings about autumnal renewal and a bit of hyperbole for donors’ benefit about recent wondrous institutional achievements, Tracey attempted to appease students and staff still incensed about my controversial appearance at the Oxford Union in May.

Her chosen approach was the by-now usual gambit of academic managers everywhere — namely, to express simultaneous support both for free speech, and for those people whose feelings are upset by it. Also as usual, the second message had the rhetorical effect of completely undercutting the first.

Failing to note that the Union is an entirely separate entity to the University, Tracey obliquely referred to the furore surrounding my visit, saying: “I was deeply saddened to learn of the abusive and threatening language and behaviours that our trans community suffered this year. We should have done more to support them; rest assured lessons were learned.” She went on to announce that the University would be developing a “toolkit in consultation with students with top tips for how to navigate free speech” to make sure it “happens within the bounds of civility, intellectual rigour and the law”.

The Vice-Chancellor’s ostentatiously apologetic stance here seemed to confirm a series of recent claims made about her by the Oxford University LGBTQ+ Society President Amiad Diman. Diman was the self-styled leader of the protests against me in May, and at the time issued a potentially libellous statement on behalf of his student Society — the largest one in Oxford — falsely describing me as a “transphobic” speaker bringing a “campaign of hate and misinformation to Oxford”.

Yet last week he tweeted that he had met with Tracey and other members of senior management over the summer “to express my concern over the harm caused to the university’s trans+ community during April-June last year”. He continued: “I was delighted to see a real tone shift and change of minds among the senior leadership, in stark contrast from their rhetoric in Trinity term. I was told that the university’s made many mistakes then and it regrets it.”

Meanwhile, the Oxford Student reported this week that, as a result of Diman’s interventions over the summer, the university has just introduced the capacity for students to “declare their pronouns” on their records. Whether any manager has considered the impact of this policy on robust sex-based data collection was not recorded. And nor was there any news on whether senior managers have met with gender-critical or sex-realist university members recently, as they have apparently done with transactivists. Failing that, one might get the distinct sense that a narrow lobby group has disproportionate power in dictating university policy — something that donors tend not to be particularly thrilled about.

In fact, claims about the harms done during the period of my visit are wildly subjective at best. In May, Diman told the BBC that the LGBTQ+ Society had received “thousands of comments online” and that some of them were “very homophobic, very transphobic, hateful, threatening”. However, assuming this is true, there was no attempt, even by him, to suggest that the comments came from university members specifically.

Meanwhile, the Oxford LGBTQ+ Society has apparently surveyed its members and found that 64% of them feel that my visit “worsened the state of [their] mental health”. Personally speaking, my own mental health was not massively improved by the visit to Oxford either, so I can certainly sympathise — but, either way, I’m not sure that such impressionistic feelings are any measure of the true benefits of this sort of event.

Later on in Tracey’s speech, she said that the university was now “creating a series of discussions on challenging topics to showcase what engaging with different views and beliefs, in a courteous manner, can look like”. Yet, to my mind, my Union appearance was exactly that — a robust but courteous exchange of views on a challenging topic, and one which included intense scrutiny from an engaged and often critical student audience.

In fact, all the hostility and discourtesy came from the transactivists protesting, with or without superglue. If the university really wants tips about how to have a robust but civil debate about a controversial topic, it should probably ask the Oxford Union — or even better, ask me back. Professor Tracey: if you’re reading this, I’m available.

Kathleen Stock is an UnHerd columnist and a co-director of The Lesbian Project.