Oxford head of EDI signs petition in support of Gaza ceasefire.

The Oxford Head of Equality and Diversity appears to be opposed to academic freedom. 

In the past few days students at the University of Oxford have set up encampments protesting Israel’s continuing invasion of the Gaza strip. An open letter supporting the protests has been signed by faculty members and administrative staff at the university. The letter states that students at the university have “demanded that the university call for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire” and that this demand is “entirely reasonable”. 

The letter goes on to demand that the University of Oxford “restrict all investment – direct or indirect – in arms, weapons, and other instruments of war”. In CAF’s view, academic freedom is compatible with universities making investment and divestment decisions for political reasons. University decisions on investment and divestment may often be unavoidably political – with no available politically neutral course of action. 

However, whatever action universities take regarding investment, universities must not hold official views. To do so violates institutional neutrality and undermines academic freedom. For the university to “call for an unconditional and immediate ceasefire” would be for the university to take an official political view on the invasion of Gaza. It must not do so.  

One of the signatories of the open letter is Vernal Scott, head of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit. This is worrying. If the head of EDI at Oxford is happy to put his name to partisan political statements, can he be trusted to fairly implement “diversity”, including “viewpoint diversity”? Lecturers at a university must of course be free to comment on the war in Gaza, or any other issue. But when a senior administrator does so, it is natural for his or her view be taken as representative of the university as an institution.  

Scott’s intervention is not the first of this kind. In April, when the Belgian mayor Emir Kir attempted to close down the National Conservatism conference, Scott posted on X (formerly Twitter): “I applaud the mayor and police of Brussels for their decision to close down this conference”. Scott later removed the post, after the Belgian High Court ruled that the closing of the conference was illegal.  

Scott’s signing of the petition and his social media post strongly suggest he is opposed to academic freedom. Given his senior position within the university’s administration, this is extremely concerning. It is especially concerning given that “EDI” lies behind many recent university failings to maintain institutional neutrality – see, for instance, CAF’s recent report on London universities.  

Scott’s public posts and signing of the petition call into question his capacity to impartially champion diversity and equality at the University of Oxford. They suggest, moreover, that he may use his position to restrict academic freedom.