February 12, 2024 - 3:55pm

The University of Edinburgh has announced that the writer and Stonewall co-founder Simon Fanshawe will be its next rector. Following an uncontested election, the activist and former comedian will assume office on 4 March. Having been involved in Stonewall’s inception in 1989, in recent years Fanshawe has been criticised for his support for gender-critical feminism and has challenged the charity’s pivot on policies regarding transgender people.

The announcement of Fanshawe’s appointment this morning was welcomed as “terrific” by Edinburgh Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF), a group for faculty members focused on free expression on campus. Edinburgh academic Neil Thin, who in 2021 was cleared by an internal investigation after a student campaign falsely accused him of racist and transphobic comments on social media, described it as “wonderful news”, with congratulations also coming from Ann Henderson, a trade union activist who served as the university’s rector between 2018-21. Henderson later said she stepped down in part because of a coordinated campaign by students and the university newspaper in opposition to her stance on single-sex spaces.

Last year, Fanshawe gave a talk at the University of Cambridge which was picketed by students banging drums and rattling the door outside the venue. In his address he claimed that LGBT activism has become increasingly “narcissistic” since the creation of Stonewall, and now centres around the “idea of the individual as indomitable”. In a 2022 article he described Stonewall in its present form as a “propaganda machine that preaches extreme and divisive gender ideology under the guise of ‘factual’ information”, and which in doing so infringes on women’s rights.

Fanshawe now works as a consultant on diversity and inclusion, and has previous experience of an administrative role at the University of Sussex, where he chaired the governing council. He was awarded an OBE for services to higher education in 2013. Responding to the news, Fanshawe stated that as rector he would work to “advance the university and its staff and students and fearlessness in the exchange of ideas”.

Beyond the student campaigns against Henderson and Thin, Edinburgh has been involved in several high-profile disputes over free speech in recent years. In 2022 the university cancelled a screening of Adult Human Female, a documentary challenging key tenets of gender ideology, after students described the event as “a clear attack on trans people’s identities”. A rescheduled screening was also called off the following year, before the film was eventually shown in November, despite a protest outside involving over 100 students and faculty members.

Earlier in 2022, student protestors occupied a meeting for Edinburgh’s [Pro-] Life Society, with one using a megaphone to say, “We are not allowing you to continue this talk.” On Edinburgh AFAF’s formation, a union official labelled the group a “haven for racists, transphobes and other assorted bigots”. 

On the announcement of Fanshawe’s appointment, one university staff member posted online that it was “unwelcome” news given the writer’s “controversial views”. The same staff member also accused Fanshawe of “campaign[ing] against the legitimacy of trans people”, a charge the latter denies. Dr Gina Gwenffrewi, an Edinburgh lecturer in Trans Studies, referred to the decision as “an outrageous declaration of contempt by the University of Edinburgh for trans people”. 

The position of rector is nominated and elected by students and staff, and is not chosen by the university’s governing body, Edinburgh’s website states. Fanshawe was the only “valid” nomination submitted. He has vowed to “promote mutual understanding” between faculty members and undergraduates with opposing views when he takes up the role.

is UnHerd’s Assistant Editor, Newsroom.