Diversity, Inclusion, and Academic Freedom: The Case of Gender Biology

Apr 7, 2021 by

by Constantin Polychronakos, Quillette:

Our university recently circulated an email message, the contents of which I found somewhat strange. Or rather, I might have found it strange had I spent the past decade or two in a coma. The message was a carefully worded reflection on how academic freedom can be reconciled with the university’s updated and strengthened policies of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Although it strategically avoided specifics, one might justifiably infer that academic freedom presents some kind of threat to DEI.

As I understand it, academic freedom means that what we publish and what we teach need only be judged for relevance and for support by the evidence base. In addition, it now appears that research must be compatible with institutional priorities. Less clear is where exactly these two guiding principles are expected to clash. In an attempt to understand this, I will reflect on a recent experience that may shed some light here.

I am a paediatric endocrinologist, with teaching duties in the Department of Paediatrics (cross-appointment in Human Genetics), at McGill University in Montréal. For a number of years, I had been giving the lecture on DSD, as part of the Reproduction and Sexuality series. This lecture is given to each class of medical students and it addresses a group of rare conditions involving individuals who are born with genital organs that are not clearly male or female. DSD used to stand for “disorders of sexual differentiation” but now the words “difference in sexual development” are increasingly being used to fit the same acronym—“disorders” is felt to be stigmatizing, and “differentiation” is too binary.

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