Controversy over the Firing of St Andrews Gender Studies Lead Dr. Alison Kerr

The recent decision by the University of St Andrews to make Dr. Alison Duncan Kerr redundant has prompted global discussion, and even attracted the attention of The New York Times. As The Times reported, Dr. Kerr had been working at St Andrews since 2017, and had established both the St Andrews Institute for Gender Studies (StAIGS), and a masters degree program for gender studies. The term 'redundancy' is used because Dr. Kerr was working under a temporary contract that the University decided to end in June, instead of offering her a permanent contract.

Currently, a petition in support of Dr. Kerr has raised over 2,300 signatures connected to an open letter. The letter goes in depth into the work Dr. Kerr has done, and calls for the University to offer her a permanent position at the risk of breaking commitments to diversity and inclusion efforts. The University has commented that Dr. Kerr has not been replaced by a man, as some news outlets had been reporting, and that the decision is under normal review processes that follow any decision of redundancy. 

The school touts an equality policy, easily accessible from the University of St Andrew’s website, that emphasizes the University’s role in “eliminating discrimination and actively promoting equality of opportunity and delivering fairness to all.” A statement from the Principal is also included on the University website, laying out ambitions to “be a beacon of inclusivity,” and claiming that the University is committed to deliberate steps and a culture shift to these ends, not only “because it is right but also because diverse organisations work smarter, encourage innovation, and maximise the creativity that is fundamental to academic excellence.”

Given these goals and efforts that the University itself has outlined, supporters of Dr. Kerr argue that she represents some of the best of St Andrews - she actively engaged with diverse disciplines and was at the forefront of creating new spaces for diversity in academia. However, it is important to note that while the topics of Dr. Kerr’s research and focus support diversity, supporters of Dr. Kerr point not only to what she is studying but to the hard work she has done. The open letter states, referencing the creation of a new masters program as well as creating and running StAIGS, that Dr. Kerr “has laboured far beyond the university’s official requirements.” Essentially, the argument is that the loss of this scholar goes beyond a blow to diversity inclusion, and is representative of broader issues of supporting hard working and active scholars.

None of this is to say that the University openly or directly dismissed Dr. Kerr, or that the University overall does not have other initiatives and scholars that are fostering diversity. However, this redundancy decision has sparked a lot of dissent, as the loss of a hard-working scholar devoted to diversity appears to go directly against the values the University itself says it is committed to cultivating. Given that the University cannot fully comment on individual employment decisions, petitioners can only argue that Dr. Kerr deserves a position based on her publicly available work and efforts.