University College London has become the first university to formally cut ties to the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, saying its membership of Stonewall’s programmes could inhibit academic freedom and discussion around sex and gender.
UCL announced that it would end its involvement with Stonewall’s workplace equality index, which rates employers on their policies, and its diversity schemes, following a recommendation from the university’s most senior academics.
“Following a period of debate within our community and careful consideration of the issues, UCL has now taken the decision that we will not re-join Stonewall’s diversity champions programme or make a submission to the workplace equality index,” UCL said in a statement.
The university said its discussions had been “informed by thoughtful and respectful debates” at its equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) committee and its academic board, with the EDI committee voting to retain involvement with Stonewall.
But UCL’s management instead sided with the academic board, which voted against retaining links after an anonymous ballot.
“In weighing up all opinions in this debate, UCL’s senior leadership team has accepted the academic board’s advice about the fundamental need to uphold academic freedom and freedom of speech in an academic context, recognising that a formal institutional commitment to Stonewall may have the effect of inhibiting academic work and discussion within UCL about sex and gender identity,” the university said.
A spokesperson for UCL said the university had “an unwavering commitment” to upholding the rights of LGBTQ+ staff and students. UCL’s senior management plans to establish an LGBTQ+ equality group “to tackle all forms of inequality, marginalisation, and discrimination experienced by LGBTQ+ colleagues and students” and develop an action plan.
A Stonewall spokesperson said: “UCL decided not to renew their membership to the diversity champions programme almost two years ago in February 2020. Our work with organisations in no way impacts their ability to uphold free speech, it simply creates welcoming working environments for LGBTQ+ people – which in 2021, should not be a controversial act.”
UCL – the largest campus university in the UK – was ranked 98th out of the more than 400 employers who submitted entries to Stonewall’s workplace equality index in 2018. In 2014 it had been the first university to join Stonewall’s global diversity champions programme.
But it emerged earlier this year that UCL had withdrawn from the diversity champion’s programme in 2020, which it said it was a temporary decision taken as a result of a cost-cutting review during the Covid pandemic. Under the scheme, members paid fees for Stonewall to assess and advise on their internal equality policies.
UCL’s move comes as Stonewall has seen several high-profile organisations, including the BBC and Ofcom, withdraw from its diversity champions programme in recent months. The University of Winchester has also previously withdrawn.