You wouldn’t imagine that a professor’s being scheduled to give a lecture at a university would be headline news, but our invitation to feminist writer Germaine Greer to speak on the subject of “Women and Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century” rapidly attracted worldwide media attention in October.
The Hadyn Ellis Distinguished Lecture Series, established in memory of our former deputy vice-chancellor, is an annual highlight in Cardiff University’s events calendar. Previous speakers have included Mary Robinson, the former president of the Republic of Ireland, Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, and Sir David Attenborough, the broadcaster and naturalist. All these events proceeded without untoward incident.
But the announcement of this year’s speaker drew a swift reaction from our students’ union’s women’s officer. A petition was set up calling for the invitation to Professor Greer – who is professor emeritus of English literature and comparative studies at the University of Warwick – to be withdrawn because she has expressed the view that someone born biologically male cannot become a woman through having surgery.
Let me say immediately that while I have great respect for Professor Greer and her achievements, I do not agree with her views on this matter. I believe it is everybody’s right to determine their own identity – including their gender identity – and that the choices we make should be respected by others. Gender identity cannot be reduced to a matter of physicality, and is not purely or even necessarily constructed on the basis of biological attributes. I absolutely accept that some people feel that the body they were born into does not correspond to their sense of their own gender. Some resent being “misgendered”, and some people do not wish to be identified in a gender-binary manner at all.
I am not alone in these views: Cardiff University has a proud and burgeoning LGBT+ community and supports any student or member of staff who identifies as transgender. Indeed, on the evening of 20 November, the Transgender Pride flag was projected on to our Main Building to mark Transgender Day of Remembrance, as a sign of our solidarity.
Nevertheless, I did not accept the premise of the petition, which was that we should withdraw an invitation issued to a distinguished and exceptional speaker on the grounds that opinions she has publicly voiced on matters other than those covered by the intended lecture are offensive to others. This was a very different case from the students’ union’s decision the previous year to cancel the booking of a comedian, Dapper Laughs, whom many students regarded as sexist, on the basis of a petition that gathered substantial public support. The students’ union is under no moral obligation to provide a venue for a comedian of any stripe if it does not wish to do so. Universities, on the other hand, are meant to be places where students, academics and the interested public can freely exchange views. Furthermore, universities are under a positive and proactive legal duty to do all that is reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech is secured. The right course of action on this occasion was not to cancel the event, but to take the opportunity to join the public debate and make the opposing case.
This is exactly what happened on 18 November. Despite suggestions in the media to the contrary, the event was never cancelled. We worked with our own security team and South Wales Police to ensure that a peaceful protest could take place outside, but that Professor Greer could speak freely inside. A small group of protesters made their views known, acting at all times with dignity and within the law. Professor Greer spoke on her planned topic and was then challenged on her views on transgender issues in the question and answer session. She put forward views that were provocative, and expressed them in a provocative manner, but in ways that did not put her in breach of the Public Order Act or the university in breach of the Equality Act. She also spoke about the suffragette movement, equal pay and abortion, again frequently in ways that challenged her audience.
For all the storm around the event, I stand by the decision to hold it, and to balance this with firm and constant expressions of support for our transgender community. I want to be clear that the argument that inviting Professor Greer to speak at a Cardiff event amounts to an endorsement of all the views she holds on all matters does not stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. The signers of petitions on both sides of this argument (which were about equally balanced) are entitled to their views, just as I am entitled to mine, and Professor Greer is entitled to hers.
My preference is for debates to be conducted with courtesy and respect, but so long as all concerned remain within the law, we should be prepared to listen to each other without any necessary implication of agreement or endorsement. That is the nature of debate, and is a fundamental principle of university life.
Colin Riordan is vice-chancellor of Cardiff University.