Jo Phoenix vs The Open University 

Monday 2nd October marked the first day of Professor Jo Phoenix’s Employment Tribunal against the Open University.  

Professor Phoenix is a highly respected criminologist, formerly Dean at Durham University and Chair of Criminology at the Open University. Professor Phoenix believes that biological sex cannot be changed, and has published research arguing that transwomen should not be admitted into some women-only spaces in prisons. She is also founder of the “Gender Critical Research Network” which aims to ensure “that a space within academia is kept open for rigorous exploration of issues of sex and gender”.  

As a result of her views, Phoenix was subject to a two year long campaign of intimidation by colleagues at the Open University. Phoenix was instructed not to speak about her research at departmental meetings. She was told, twice, by her manager that she was similar to a racist. She was viciously abused online by colleagues, and received anonymous emails stating that the senders were “out to get her”. At the end of two years, following a diagnosis of acute post-traumatic stress disorder, Phoenix resigned from the Open University.  

Phoenix claims that the university did little or nothing to protect her from this campaign of abuse. Indeed, with heavy irony, one of the principal online abusers was the faculty’s then representative for Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity.  

Phoenix has launched an employment tribunal case against the Open University. The tribunal will seek to ascertain: 

  1. Whether the behaviour of the university, and several direct colleagues of Phoenix’s, amounted to bullying, harassment, and discrimination.  
  1. Whether the university failed to protect her from bullying, harassment, and discrimination.  
  1. Whether Phoenix was constructively dismissed.  

A hearing will last until the 20th October, after which a judgement will be made. If Phoenix is successful, the Open University may be ordered to make a payment to her as “remedy”.  

Jo Phoenix’s story is a chilling example of how effective “non-official” pressures can be in curbing academic freedom. Phoenix reports that senior academics from across the UK told her they would like to be on the mailing list of the Gender Critical Network, but that after the treatment she received they dared not get publicly involved. It is not enough that universities do not sack staff whose views contradict prevailing orthodoxies. They must also ensure a working environment where these views are tolerated. At a minimum, toleration implies the ability to discuss one’s work and protection from abuse. The Open University failed to provide this in the case of Jo Phoenix. In other cases, it has gone even further and sacked staff whose views ran counter to the prevailing orthodoxy. See, for instance, the case of Almut Gadow