Durham SU President launches ‘Culture Commission’

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Durham Students’ Union President, Seun Twins, has launched the Durham Culture Commission. The Commission will work alongside the University’s Respect Commission, but will focus on the student experience and the culture at Durham University. 

Twins has described the Commission as “a report to explore and locate and ultimately deconstruct toxicity at Durham.”

The report will aim to identify positive and negative behaviours and attitudes among Durham students, and offer long-term recommendations to deconstruct and amend the culture at the University.

It is projected to take five months to complete, and will include the experiences of a wide demographic of Durham students. Twins told Palatinate: “Working-class, northern and local students as well as students of colour LGBTQ+ students, international students, and many other student sub communities, will be essential to making this Commission a thorough piece of work.”

There is no budget that has been specifically set for the Commission, however, Palatinate understands that it may require some spending by Durham SU. 

From November, Twins, alongside ten other volunteer commissioners, who have been appointed by the SU President, will be running focus groups and distributing an online form to carry out research for the report. The commissioner team includes SU Association and JCR Presidents, as well as other students. It will also include an independent commissioner who has no previous experience with Durham University, and an open commissioner position which is yet to be advertised.

Commenting on the commissioner team at the recent SU Assembly, Twins refuted claims that the commissioners were chosen due their identity. She said they were chosen because they “added value to the work” and demonstrated  “an interest and an investment in dismantling Durham’s culture.”

A report to explore and locate and ultimately deconstruct toxicity at Durham.

Durham SU President

Twins hopes that the methods being used will allow students to express their views and experiences in a “safe and constructive environment”, and that the research will make Durham a more “welcoming place”, and also commented that she wants the Commission give students a chance to shape Durham University.

Durham has made national headlines multiple times in recent months for incidents including the hijacking of an LGBT+ Zoom link, hosted by St Mary’s College, by 15-20 anonymous callers, as well as a report by a student which alleged physical and verbal abuse against Northern students at the University. 

In another incident, last month, one Durham student was expelled from the University for making racist remarks on social media, whilst another was expelled for committing a “serious breach” of the University’s Sexual Misconduct and Violence Policy. Another student had their offer removed after screenshots of hateful comments made in group chats by Durham University students were posted online on the Facebook group Overheard at Durham Uni. However, two other male students implicated in the screenshots were able to keep their offers to study at the University.

Durham SU has also faced its own controversies. During the SU election in February, the SU disqualified the Re-Open Nominations (RON) option for alleged campaign rules violations. 58% of the total votes cast, which were for RON, were subsequently deleted, including second and third preferences.

Since then, Durham SU has commented that candidates in the election were “harassed, vilified and bullied in this election more than ever before – which coincided with more students of colour and international students running for election than ever before.”

Many university spaces are becoming battlegrounds rather than places for learning.

Durham SU President

Commenting on the culture at Durham University, Twins said: “Many university spaces are becoming battlegrounds rather than places for learning. The culture wars are getting out of hand and marginalised students are the collateral in an environment that would prefer hostility and toxicity over inclusivity and diversity.

“I have come to realise that one single, homogeneous and unchanging Durham culture does not in fact exist. There is not one Durham experience that a student can or must have.”

Twins has been critical of the University Council’s Respect Commission, which was set up to investigate ‘Respect, Values and Behaviour’ in Durham University. She said “The Respect Commission did not fully address the student experience –  it treated Durham University more as a workplace.” She also noted that student attendance at Town Hall meetings for the Respect Commission has been low.

Twins also criticised Joe Docherty’s comments, who is Chair of Durham University Council. She referred to Docherty’s description of culture as “what happens when no one is watching,” 

We are all part of this community and we are all responsible for building it.

Durham SU President

She said: “We can never really separate ourselves from the culture that we are all constantly contributing to. […] I do not believe we are either watching or not watching – we are all part of this community and we are all responsible for building it. 

“A dominant culture in Durham continues to mischaracterise all Durham students as one and the same, but it is our reluctance to address and challenge this, which has allowed problematic behaviours to cascade throughout our university.”

However, Twins acknowledged that the Respect Commission “demonstrates an institution-wide recognition of systemic disrespect in Durham” and an “institution-wide appetite to promote positive behaviours. The Respect Commission is arguably the first step that Durham has taken to be introspective and start the process of long-term and sustainable cultural change.” 

Durham SU also announced last week that it would be hiring paid ‘Decolonisation Interns’ to “provide a critical student voice on the issue of decolonising our curriculum”.

Image: Durham University via YouTube

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