Exeter University introduces “Inclusive Practitioners Commitment”.

On 28 May, all staff at the University of Exeter received the following invitation in the university’s Weekly Bulletin:

The link took readers through to a “commitment” which runs as follows:

Inclusive Practitioners Commitment 2024

My goal is to be the kind of person that LGBTQ+ people can confide in and feel safe around, whether they are out or not. I cannot know everything, but I know how to signpost and ask for advice. Most importantly, I can listen! To this end I commit to:

1. I will respect and affirm trans staff and students. Including their pronouns and chosen names.

2. I will seek out LGBTQ+ people’s contributions to my discipline, especially if they are under-represented within it. When referencing transgender and non-binary experts I will respect their identities, names, and pronouns.

3. I will seek to educate myself about the barriers facing LGBTQ+ people and attempt to address any that arise in my area of work. I will prioritise learning about LGBTQ+ people from LGBTQ+ groups and individuals.

4. In a time when anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments are on the rise I understand that it’s necessary to educate myself about how anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments can perpetuate themselves through micro-aggressions, dog whistles and talking points. I will seek to be an active ally and defend LGBTQ+ people in situations where they are experiencing discrimination or isolation.

5. I am firmly against all forms of discrimination, including transphobia, bi-erasure, acephobia and intersexism. I recognize the intersectionality of LGBTQ+ rights with other liberation struggles including those of feminist, disabled, and global majority communities.

6. I will make an effort to ensure my allyship is visible, for example by sharing my pronouns where appropriate.

A further page told readers that “by signing the commitment, you will be able to display a badge (staff profile, … email signature), as well as appearing in a optional directory”.

There are reasons to be worried by this initiative. Many Exeter University lecturers will not want to make an open-ended commitment to “respect and affirm” trans staff and students, to share their pronouns, or to seek out LGBTQ+ people’s contributions to their discipline. In future, such lecturers will be easily identifiable: they will have no “badge” under their email signature nor will they appear in the proposed directory.  That, presumably, is the whole point of the exercise. It is to smoke out and put pressure on dissenters – those who, by implication, LGBTQ+ people will not “feel safe around”.

Initiatives of this sort are now common in UK universities, and many other organisations too. They are a peculiarly underhand way of enforcing new cultural norms. As human rights barrister and CAF advisory board member Dr. Anna Loutfi puts it, “You don’t have to be forced to sign the pledge. It’s enough that you’re expected to do so, because not to would make you a bad person in the eyes of your colleagues”. 

Of course, Exeter University is entitled to require personally respectful behaviour and mutual tolerance. This requirement is in its speech code already. But encouraging staff to sign up to a controversial social agenda goes far beyond this, and is likely to be unlawful. Best Free Speech Practice puts the point clearly in its recent guide to the law in this area:

Whenever HEPs promote certain viewpoints in respect of areas which are the subject of debate or controversy, to (directly or indirectly) require or exert pressure for the endorsement of or acquiescence to those viewpoints…will be a clear breach of the primary requirements under HERA, unless they are legally obliged to take the relevant actions. They also risk constituting harassment under the Equality Act; an institution disapproving of a viewpoint has been held to be sufficient to constitute harassment.

CAF calls on the University of Exeter to drop its “Inclusive Practitioners Commitment”.