Almost 40 law academics at the University of Queensland have signed an open letter pledging to support transgender students after the university’s law school dean presented a paper that compared transgender children to teens with eating disorders.

Patrick Parkinson, the head of the university’s TC Beirne school of law, told a religious freedom conference that religious schools should be free to reject the gender identity of students.

“[A] crisis of conscience may arise from a genuine belief that it is not in the best interests of the child or young person to affirm his or her transgender identification, any more than it would be in the best interests of an adolescent girl with an eating disorder to affirm her body image as overweight,” Parkinson said.

“This paper has endeavoured to show just how many of the ideas strongly promulgated by some in the transgender movement are based upon unscientific beliefs, or otherwise beliefs and values that science can neither validate nor disprove.

“Gender theory has emerged from the humanities, not the sciences.”

Academic staff say they were compelled to make a public statement after students approached them and raised concerns.

The UQ law society has also issued a statement, saying Parkinson’s comments “are not reflective of the inclusive culture fostered amongst law students”.

“We acknowledge the concerns raised by students and staff regarding the comments,” the society said.

“The [law society] rejects the sentiment expressed and recognises that these statements do not reflect the lived experiences of transgender people, as well as those transitioning or who identify as gender fluid or non-binary.”

Parkinson, a family law professor who has worked for the Australian Christian Lobby and is the chairman of the conservative thinktank Freedom for Faith, was controversially appointed to head the law school last year.

Guardian Australia has spoken to several academic staff who say they have broad concerns about the impact of his tenure.

The concern does not relate to Parkinson’s academic freedom or his authority to make such statements; rather his leadership role in ensuring the school offers a welcoming environment to a diverse student body.

“There is absolutely a concern that good people won’t want to work here, good students won’t want to study here, if they see those comments and think this is the person who runs the show,” one academic said.

One senior lecturer who signed the letter contacted the Guardian to say Parkinson had actively strongly supported diversity and inclusion at the school.

In a remarkable statement, 38 members of staff at the law school have co-signed a letter with a commitment to promote diversity within the faculty.

Rain Liivoja

I will do whatever I can to support #LGBTIAQ+ members of the @UQLaw and wider #UQ community. I am privileged to work with colleagues who share this commitment to diversity and inclusion

September 17, 2019

The letter does not mention Parkinson or his recent comments directly, but academics who spoke to the Guardian say they had an obligation to make clear their own position, and that they would support students who might otherwise feel ostracised.

“TC Beirne school of law is home to a large number of staff who continually strive to foster an inclusive community for all students, including LGBTIAQ+ students,” the statement says.

“As staff committed to diversity and inclusion, we want to affirm our support to transgender and gender diverse students. We will use their preferred names and personal pronouns. We are here to listen.

“We welcome suggestions as to how we can continue to cultivate an open and welcoming environment.”

Parkinson told Guardian Australia that he also supported the statement.

“I have been advised that many of my colleagues who signed the rather general statement circulated did so because they agree with it, as do I, but they also agree that the issues I raised are important ones to address in the interests of children and young people,” he said.

“You can be assured that I have a very strong commitment to diversity and inclusion within the law school, as do all my colleagues. That includes students and staff who are LGBTQIA+ (as are members of my own family).

“It does not matter in the slightest what someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity is either for the study or practice of law. As law school staff, we are unanimous in that view, and it is the clear policy of the university.

“None of my colleagues have raised any concerns with me, and none have asked for a copy of the 14,000-word paper that I delivered last week. Had they done so, they would have found that it deals with issues that are being widely discussed in the medical and scientific literature.

“My background is in child protection. To suggest that we don’t tackle difficult issues because it might be challenging is to avoid the responsibilities of intellectual leadership.”