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University of York International Men’s Day controversy prompts anger, threats

ByMolly Sandford-Ward

Nov 30, 2015

The University of York ignited fiery controversy last week after announcing plans to observe International Men’s Day (IMD) on November 19 and then withdrawing under pressure.

Angry open letters and petitions have been circulated on both sides of the debate, and allegations have been made of online harassment and threats, The Student has learned.

The controversy emerged after the University originally decided to honour the day, billed on its official website as “an occasion for men to celebrate their achievements and contributions”. It expressed its initial support through an official statement from Dr Adrian Lee, Equality Champion for Student and Academic Services.

In the statement, Dr Lee said: “men are under-represented in the student population as a whole”, and added that “in academic staff appointments, the data suggests that female candidates have a higher chance of being appointed than men.”

“We are resolved to address these issues systematically and fairly,” he added, explaining the university’s decision to honour IMD.

The decision was quickly condemned on campus. Shortly after its announcement, an open letter of opposition addressed to Dr Lee and the University’s registrar, David Duncan, was signed by around 200 students, staff and alumni.

The signatories wrote they were, “deeply concerned by the University’s recent decision to mark International Men’s Day”, stating that “we believe that men’s issues cannot be approached in the same way as unfairness and discrimination towards women, because women are structurally unequal to men”.

The letter went on to state that the original statement on the female-weighting of the support staff sector “misses the crucial point [about] men’s ‘underrepresentation’”, as “men dominate senior – and better paid – roles”.

It warned that celebrating IMD, a controversial event, posed “a significant reputational risk to the university”. In response, the University quickly changed course, releasing a statement that it was “sorry that this has caused unhappiness for some members of the University community” and that “the statement marking this year’s International Men’s Day has been withdrawn and we can confirm that we will no longer be marking International Men’s Day 2015.”

The withdrawal has led to further indignation from those in support of the original event. A petition quickly launched calling for the reinstatement of the event, which had over 4,000 signatures at time of press.

Written by sociology student Ruth Morris, the petition read: “to cancel men’s day is simply hypocritical. Equality is not just for women and should concern all genders.”

On campus, students are divided.  Speaking to The Student, a Third Year History student at York, who wished to remain anonymous, said:  “The university was extremely wrong to make a statement emphasising supposed employment ‘problems’ for men, rather than the serious issues some men face with regards to mental health and abuse.”

He continued: “IMD was established…to belittle women and feminism. The University could have done something great to talk about male issues around this time of year, to defy that international organisation. It chose not to.”

In contrast, Matthew Edwards, a Third Year Politics student at the University of York, told The Student: “the university’s decision to cancel international men’s day just shows the grasp extremist left wing movements have over our University.”

He added: “The University has allowed extremist feminists to create a divide between males and females and our student population is now very divided as a result of this”, stating that, with the petition, “we have easily crushed the numbers from the original open letter but despite this the University continues to ignore the majority.”

Glen Poole, the UK Coordinator of International Men’s Day and UK director of Helping Men, told The Student that he was “deeply heartened to see a young, female, feminist sociology student step forward and start a petition in favour of International Men’s Day,” stating that “the absence of care and compassion demonstrated by those who actively chose to oppose a day that is bringing much needed awareness to issues like male suicide […] is hard for those not familiar with the sometimes toxic nature of gender politics in academia, to understand.”

The debate has taken a dark turn as allegations emerged of online harassment and abuse directed toward opponents of the event.

One student familiar with the events told The Student: “many signatories are being personally attacked. Rumours are circulating that members of staff who signed that letter are receiving rape threats.”

The Student reached out to several dozen signatories of the open letter and could not independently confirm the claim at time of press.  However, some academics expressed their awareness of it.

Dr Mary Fairclough, lecturer in English, told The Student: “I was lucky enough not to receive threats [myself]. Some of my colleagues in the English department did receive threats.”

Dr Catriona Kennedy, senior lecturer in History, told The Student: “I heard about the abuse which is awful. I haven’t received any myself, though I’m not at all active on Twitter or social media which may be why.”

In a statement on her public Facebook page dated November 18, York University Students Union (YUSU) Women’s Officer Annana Zaman said: “The harassment and abuse we have seen on social media over the last 24 hours is totally unacceptable.

“Have some respect, and stop being threatening and aggressive just because you didn’t get what you want. Let’s remain respectful.”

Research contributed by Rosie Barrett and Ethan DeWitt.

Image: The JR James Archive

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