Editorial: New captain, same ship

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As we make a return to Durham, shaking off the Christmas spirit and inevitably abandoning new year resolutions, most students can at least take solace in starting off the term with the strange familiarity of opening a laptop while in bed, nodding off half-naked in a 9am and no-one noticing a thing.

But while we may be burdened with the prospect of the looming summative season, housemate rows, and the tundra of Durham City, spare a thought for Durham University’s new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Karen O’Brien.

In a reversal of the fate experienced by many still-salty Durham third-years, Professor O’Brien fled her post as Head of Humanities at Oxford and has arrived amongst the dreaming spires of the TLC and Elvet Riverside.

A baptism of fire awaits the accomplished academic. The UCU is revving up for strikes again in February, and notwithstanding some miracle national-level agreement on pensions, she will have little room to move. The University announcing it opposes the proposed changes might shift the dial locally, but given it played that card in 2019 and strikes continued regardless, the new head may not see the point.

With strikes come many immediate questions to solve: will there be mitigation for exams? Where does the money saved go? What to say in the next UCU negotiation talks? Whether to give students rebates? And so on. Of course, the course seems clear for Durham answering these questions (yes, academic societies, not much, and no, in that order), but Professor O’Brien may yet wish to make an impact by changing the tune of Durham’s strike response.

Students are now a lot more confident in their understanding of the virus and vaccine

If that isn’t enough, five days into the role the Secretary of State for Education publicly took issue with universities who have decided to move teaching online.

Indeed, Covid-19 restrictions imposed by the University have suddenly become a far more political issue. Whereas previously students were annoyed but understanding, they are becoming increasingly frustrated and confused.

Students are now a lot more confident in their understanding of the virus and vaccine. Even though for those not in their first year the experience is par for the course, fear of Covid-19 has turned into open questioning of additional University restrictions.

The most recent examples are a return to the tiresome pre-booking slot system in the library, and a ban on spectators at all University and college fixtures.

It is admittedly difficult to square how after being told for over a year that the virus spreads significantly less outdoors, you can’t go and see your college clash in Floodlit with a few friends in the afternoon, but you can freely head out with hundreds of others to a packed sweaty nightclub in the evening.

But the most imminent storm through which the new captain must manoeuvre is, of course, the continuing repercussions of Rod Liddle’s visit to South College toward the end of Michaelmas Term. Though the University successfully kicked the can down the road with an investigation into the incident, apparently due ‘mid-January’, it faces some very awkward questions.

If, as the University has confirmed, it knew about Liddle’s attendance at the formal, and that “arrangements were discussed” regarding its staging, then surely it must be investigating itself? It is a certainly an act of extreme logical gymnastics for the University to suspend Professor Luckhurst from public duties and launch an investigation, if the event occurring was approved by the University long beforehand.

That’s not to mention the fact that very prominent lawyers and most of the national papers have given the Principal their backing. So while the mood on campus is clearly blowing in one direction, for a new Vice-Chancellor the affair could be nothing short of a hurricane.

A new boss at any institution can bring with a change in attitude and culture. But unfortunately for Professor O’Brien, Durham’s a messy and unstable place to manage, and that’s not changing any time soon.

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