Gender studies has become a lucrative and prestigious topic at the world’s leading institutions and universities have moved to lure its scholars, not least because of the insights they cast right across teaching and research.

But there has also been a backlash against the field – from the rightist government of Hungary, among others – amid campus politics about what some conservatives call “woke” subjects.

Now Scotland has become the latest global battlefield over the future of the discipline as the country’s oldest university lets go a leading academic.

St Andrews is to part company with Alison Duncan Kerr, an American philosopher who is director of its Institute for Gender Studies (StAIGS).

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More than 1,000 students and academics have signed a petition for Kerr to stay with dire warnings that the entire subject area is in peril. 

University authorities, already reeling from reports of a culture of sexual harassment and assault on campus,  dismiss such concerns, saying StAIGS is bigger than any one member of staff and that they are committed to gender atudies, including a masters degree Kerr teaches.

But that has not stopped a wave of protests around Scotland, the UK and the world at a decision not to renew Kerr’s short-term, three-year contract. 

These are anxious times in higher education. Covid has affected university budgets – St Andrews hit the headlines last week after admitting it would not teach in person until at least the next academic year, cutting off key revenue streams like refectories.

Unions and others have specific concerns about the precarity of early and middle-career scholars, especially women, on short-term contracts.

Kerr’s redundancy has had resonance, sparking a campaign called StandwithAlison which has attracted specific support from some of the biggest names in gender studies.

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Elinor Mason, a philosophy professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a signatory to the petition and an external examiner for gender studies at St Andrews. 

She said: “I want to stress how valuable this programme is, and what a shame it would be to squander all the work that Kerr has put into it.” 

Andrea Peto of Central European University in Vienna has been at the sharp end of hostility on the subject from the government of prime minister Viktor Orban.

She said: “Gender studies is under attack globally. Very sad that this is also happening at the University of St Andrews. Maybe it is not too late to change this decision.” 

Professor Kirstein Rummery of the University of Stirling added: “At a time when gender studies and interdisciplinary feminist scholarship are badly needed, growing in popularity and under epistemic attack, this seems a questionable decision from a prestigious institution that should be leading the way.”


‘Shameful’ decision

ECHOING such concerns, Louise Antony of the University of Massachusetts and Rutgers University said Kerr had “done an outstanding job creating and nurturing the institute”.

She added: “She should be cherished and rewarded, not fired. Shame on St Andrews.” 

This is stinging criticism of St Andrews, seen as a top university. Indeed its philosophy department, under whose auspices StAIGS is organised, is one of the world’s top-ranked.

Supporters of Kerr – including students and colleagues – say she is the guiding light behind the institute and its MLitt masters degree. They say that two men who will now teach the course, while experts in their own field, do not have a background in the subject.

There are fears that stuffy conservatism will mean gender studies – which cross women’s, men’s and queer studies – might end up staying in name only. 

The subject is lucrative and attracts fee-paying students.

This is all disputed inside St Andrews. 

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A spokesman for the university did not wish to discuss the specifics of Kerr’s case, which is subject to an appeals process. However, he added: “We are aware of various communications circulating about this case, including an ‘open letter’.”

He added: “There are several fundamental misrepresentations in these communications. The impression given is both misleading and unfairly damaging to the university and to other respected academic members of staff. 

“The MLitt was never set up to be operated by a single person. The long-term plan was always that a cohort of suitably qualified individuals would teach and direct the programme. 

“It is now running successfully under the auspices of the Graduate School for Interdisciplinary Studies. The colleagues teaching on and directing the MLitt programme currently are suitably qualified to do so, and have taken over at extremely short notice. 

“The staff member delivering the module is an accomplished researcher with authority in this field. The staff member acting as programme director holds the role of director of teaching for the Graduate School and is, therefore, the appropriate person to oversee the programme at this current time.”

The university is also stressing that StAIGS is not a standalone institute but part of the philosophy department. 

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The spokesman added that short-term contracts are exactly what they appear to be and that people who enter into them know they will come to an end. 

He said: “The university follows a strict protocol for the ending of fixed-term contracts where we ensure that the line manager holds a discussion with the individual concerned to discuss the potential ending of the contract, and alternatives that might be considered where the substantive role is not continuing.

This includes encouraging individuals, where appropriate, to apply or other permanent positions that may be available in related areas.

The ending of any fixed-term contract is deemed as a redundancy, with staff given the opportunity to bring forward considerations, and the right to appeal. The university does not undertake this exercise in a perfunctory manner.”

Gender inequality

KERR supporters tell a different story, saying the academic had every reason to expect her position would be made permanent at the end of three years.

The StandwithAlison campaign, in a statement, added: “Making her position permanent would help address gender inequality within the philosophy department, where only four of 19 permanent faculty members are women and the only junior female faculty are on temporary contracts. 

“Yet, Alison is not to be offered a permanent contract and now faces unemployment. The future of StAIGS and the gender studies MLitt programme are also now under threat.”

One of Alison’s MLitt gender studies students, Aimee Louise Lewis, said students were appalled at their teacher’s treatment. “I undertook this degree as a career change, to help eradicate the exploitation of women which I have witnessed around the world and experienced in the workplace myself,” Lewis said.

“I am outraged that this type of exploitation can be found at St Andrews. Dr Kerr is an exceptionally talented and dedicated individual, and I know I speak for the majority of my cohort when I say we are deeply concerned by the university’s actions.” 

In a statement, Kerr herself said she was “deeply heartened” by support from staff, students and global scholars.

She said StAIGS was groundbreaking and was “attracting a whole new group of students who might not otherwise consider St Andrews as a place to study”. 

“The decision by the university to end my contract, and put the entire gender studies programming at risk, is a slap in the face for all of us who took them seriously when they promised to promote diversity among staff and the curriculum they deliver,”

Kerr said. “I perceived St Andrews as a safe place for gender studies students and research on gender. In talking with various colleagues who work on gender studies around the world, I am reminded of the threat that keeps rising for research in this area, despite the fact that it is a field that clearly yields substantial income. This type of exploitation has struck a nerve with many.”

She concluded: “St Andrews was where I planned the future for myself and my young family with the confidence that both the university’s employment policy and my ongoing contribution to the university’s diversity and inclusivity agenda actually meant something.

“I still hope to hear from the administration that they are reversing this decision.”