St Andrews University under fire after axing only female gender studies professor


A university has sparked a global row after axing the only female professor on a gender studies course.

More than 1,000 students and academics have signed a petition condemning the decision by St Andrews not to renew their contract with Dr Alison Kerr.

They say Dr Kerr, an American philosopher, had a crucial role in setting up the institute in 2018 and has led its postgraduate masters course.

But having been employed on a fixed-term contract, Dr Kerr’s hope of being made a permanent staff member were dashed when she was told her employment would come to an end in June.

More than 1,000 students and academics have signed a petition condemning the decision by St Andrews not to renew their contract with Dr Alison Kerr

It has been reported that the course will now be taught by two men who, critics say, do not have a background in the subject.

But authorities have dismissed this claim, saying the institute is bigger than any one member of staff and in the long term should be run by a ‘cohort of suitably qualified individuals’. 

The move has sparked anger among students and several high-profile gender studies academics, with some launching a campaign called StAndwithAlison.

More than 1,000 students and experts have also signed a petition condemning the decision.

Among the signatories, Elinor Mason, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, 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, from Central European University in Budapest, said: ‘Gender studies is under attack globally. Very sad that this is also happening at University of St Andrews. Maybe it is not too late to change this decision.’

Professor Kirstein Rummery, from the University of Stirling, said: ‘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.’

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

The move has sparked anger among students and several high-profile gender studies academics, with some launching a campaign called StAndwithAlison. Pictured: St Andrews

The move has sparked anger among students and several high-profile gender studies academics, with some launching a campaign called StAndwithAlison. Pictured: St Andrews

‘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 longterm plan was always that a cohort of suitably qualified individuals would teach and direct the programme.’

Who is Dr Alison Kerr?

After gaining her doctorate in philosophy at Ohio State, Alison Duncan Kerr joined the university as a lecturer before taking up an offer to move to St Andrews University in 2016.

In 2018, she secured a three-year Research Fellowship in order to establish the Institute of Gender Studies (StAIGS), which would become part of the philosophy department. As part of the institute, Dr Kerr launched and has run a Gender Studies MLitt course.

According to campaigners, the fees from the first cohort to sign up for the course was large enough to cover the cost of her fellowship, with numbers on the lucrative course set to double in the next academic year.

The course was proved incredibly popular, and is the largest interdisciplinary research institute at St Andrews with more than 130 academics from 19 different schools.

During her time as director of the institute, Dr Kerr has written on subjects of Artificial Intelligence and gender and the psychology of guilt while supervising three PhD students.

With her fixed-term contract ending on 31 June, supporters says Dr Kerr had expected to be offer a permanent role, but was told the university did not intend to make the offer, and are proposing redundancy.

He added: ‘The colleagues teaching on and directing the MLitt programme currently are suitably qualified to do so, and have taken over at extremely short notice.’

They added that the MLitt in Gender Studies course Dr Kerr taught is ‘in very good hands and is continuing, with contributions and support from excellent, highly-qualified staff’.

Dr Kerr’s supporters reject the university’s reasoning, saying she had every reason to expect a permanent position following the end of her three-year contract, as she would help correct the gender imbalance in the overarching Philosophy department.

Only four of its 19 permanent faculty members are women, and the only junior female faculty are on temporary contracts.

One of Dr Kerr’s masters 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 said: ‘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 added: ‘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.’

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