The University of St Andrews has faced opposition, which has included a campaign and the circulation of an open letter, following their decision not to renew Dr Kerr's contract
The University of St Andrews has informed Dr Alison Duncan Kerr that, when her fixed-term contract ends on the 31 June 2021, they “do not intend to transfer [her] to a standard contract.” This decision has sparked backlash from both students and staff at the University, as well as from academics across the world. Furthermore, it resulted in the launch of the StAndWithAlison campaign which seeks to reverse the decision made by the University.
Dr Kerr was first employed by The University of St Andrews on 1 September 2016, and has been continuously employed since 1 September 2017. In 2018, she secured a 3-year Research Fellowship for the purpose of establishing the St Andrews Institute of Gender Studies (StAIGS), to be overseen by the Department of Philosophy, and launching a new Gender Studies MLitt.
StAIGS, which Dr Kerr is currently director of, is the largest interdisciplinary research institute at the University of St Andrews with more than 130 academics and more than 50 graduate students from 19 different Schools. Moreover, StAIGS has frequently been praised by the Principal’s Office for its interdisciplinarity and contributions to University strategy, especially regarding gender equality.
Furthermore, the StAndWithAlison campaign claims that due to the success of the Gender Studies MLitt, next year’s cohort is expected to double in size. The campaign highlights Dr Kerr’s contribution further, noting her establishment of a ten-year plan of activities for StAIGS; her organisation of over 20 talks, eight workshops or roundtables, monthly reading group sessions, an external speaker series, and a film series; and her vision to establish a Scottish Gender Studies Network – for which she has began to establish links with the Gender Studies programmes at Aberdeen, Glasgow, Stirling, and Strathclyde.
They also highlight Dr Kerr’s school and department work with both undergraduate and postgraduate courses; her service on the board of editors for the Philosophy Department’s journal, The Philosophical Quarterly, and as the current faculty advisor for Minorities and Philosophy; as well as the fact that she introduced popular and well-evaluated Honours modules on the topics of gender and the philosophy of love and sex.
The University of St Andrews told The Saint, “All individuals employed on fixed-term contracts at St Andrews are aware from the outset that the contract may end. The University follows a strict protocol for the ending of fixed-term contracts…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.”
They added, “This includes encouraging individuals, where appropriate, to apply for 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.”
The University of St Andrews also stated that, “In this particular case, an appeals process is still underway, and it would not be appropriate to comment further on specific detail.”
Furthermore, in a statement released by the University in “response to inquiries about Dr Alison Kerr”, they stated, “We have excellent HR Policies and apply them consistently, in the interests of fairness to everybody and in the spirit of our unswerving commitment to equality and diversity”.
A spokesperson for the University of St Andrews also wished to clarify that recent media reports claiming that Dr Kerr is being “replaced by men” are “inaccurate and incorrect”.
They stated, “Dr Kerr is in post and under contract until June 2021. She has, however, withdrawn from continuing to teach the programme. Her duties are being covered by several colleagues, women and men, from disciplines across the University.”
They continued, “Current responsibility for the Gender Studies Programme lies with Dr Morven Shearer, Director of our Graduate School, who is currently in discussions with a range of academic colleagues in St Andrews about appointing a programme director for the remainder of the academic year.”
However, the StAndWithAlison campaign has criticised the University’s decision. The campaign, which includes an open letter to the University signed by 1692 supporters at time of writing, alleges that the University’s decision has not “fairly acknowledged” the “impact [Dr Kerr] has had on the University’s equalities agenda” and calls upon the University to honour the commitments it has made to to this agenda and to the Athena SWAN charter, a framework which aims to support and transform gender equality within higher education and research.
Furthermore, the StAndWithAlison campaign claims that only 4 out of 19 permanent members of faculty within the Philosophy Department are women. In addition, they state that there are only two members of Academic and Research Staff within the Department – including Dr Kerr – who work explicitly on gender and feminist philosophy. They allege that both of these members of staff will, due to their planned redundancy or the short length of their contract, not remain at the University for the academic year 2021-2022 or beyond. Therefore, they allege that there is uncertainty as to whether there will be any member of academic and research staff within the Philosophy Department who explicitly works on gender or feminist philosophy after September 2021. The campaign thus concludes that the decision to make Dr Kerr redundant challenges a commitment to improving gender diversity within the University of St Andrews.
The University, however, claims that within the “various communications circulating about this case, including an ‘open letter’”, “there are several fundamental misrepresentations…The impression given is both misleading and unfairly damaging to the University, and to other respected academic members of staff.”Furthermore, responding to criticisms within StAndWithAlison’s open letter, The University of St Andrews has stated that “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.”
They continued, “Institutes, Centres and programmes within the University do not generally have permanent, ring-fenced roles or Executive Directors; rather, Director roles are usually rotational, and held by experienced academic leaders who are members of the Institute.”
Public testimonies from signatories of StAndWithAlison’s Open Letter, however, question the University’s commitment to expanding StAIGS in light of the recent decision, while also highlighting the value of Dr Kerr and her work. Amongst these signatories are both students and esteemed academics from the top institutions around the world.
One student commented, “Her [Dr Kerr’s] removal has led to more than just the loss of a talented program leader and researcher, it has created a distrust of the university itself.”
Another student stated that they felt it showed a “lack of care towards the Gender Studies course through Dr Kerr’s treatment” and continues that the situation “ is worrying for a female looking to pursue a career in academia like Dr Kerr.”
One signatory, Dr Konrad Lawson, a lecturer in Modern History at The University of St Andrews wrote, “This is deeply disappointing. I was delighted to come across Dr Kerr’s work and invite her to contribute to the Global Social and Political Thought masters programme. Her expertise and involvement in the new Gender studies programme represents exactly the direction St Andrews should be going. This is a huge step backwards.”
Professor Kirstein Rummery, Professor of Social Policy and Codirector of the Centre on Gender and Feminist Studies at the University of Stirling also expressed her disappointment.
She stated, “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.”
Professor Sally McConnel-Genet, Professor of Linguistics at Cornell University, USA, wrote, “Alison has done an extraordinary job and more than merits a permanent position at St Andrews”. While, Dr Bethany Laurse, Assistant Dean at Michigan State University, USA, added, “I heartily agree that St Andrews should honour its promises from the Athena SWAN Action Plan and do the right thing to move Dr Kerr to a permanent contract. The University and its students can only benefit by doing so.”
Leonor Capelier, co-President of the Feminist Society at the University of St Andrews and signatory of the campaign’s open letter, told The Saint, “ I am truly disappointed at the decision. In my degree, I have been able to expand my passion for gender studies and hope to pursue it after my undergraduate.”
Worried about the progression of the St Andrews Institute for Gender Studies, Ms Capelier continued, “This decision to subsidise the department and offload the work onto professors who are not experienced within the field of gender studies makes a precedent that the university does not value this field of academia as highly as others and that it is not worthwhile. I have had the pleasure of hearing Dr Duncan Kerr speak at this university and she is a brilliant professor. Losing the singular professor dedicated to this field is a tragedy in my eyes.”
The Saint contacted Dr Kerr for comment about the developing situation but were informed by her that she was not in the position to answer questions for reasons that she was unable to disclose.
The conflict remains unresolved whilst the decision to end Dr Kerr’s contract is undergoing an appeals process. Meanwhile, the number of signatories of the open letter continues to rise as StAndWithAlison actively campaigns across social media, sharing the open letter containing their demands.