Kate McIntosh has worked as Durham Students’ Union President for the last year. In her final week in the job, Palatinate spoke to her about life in lockdown, being a woman in leadership and democracy at the SU.
As with every interaction since March, we spoke to McIntosh from our own homes over Zoom. “I really miss being in office,” she tells us. “When this job is hard and you’re very stressed, being amongst the staff team and other officers is really lovely, it’s a really supportive environment. It’s also really weird being in meetings with the Vice-Chancellor and University Exec when I’m in my bedroom!”
Most Durham students don’t know exactly what an SU Officer does day-to-day, so McIntosh takes us through what her job, a sabbatical role for students who have just graduated, involves. “The majority of my work is in university spaces – I’m normally much more in the Palatine Centre than in the SU, in committee meetings. I sit on the University Council alongside other members, and I’m legally a governor of the University, which means I’m legally and financially responsible for the University alongside other staff.
“I sit on loads of committees – and when I say loads, I mean loads! A lot of decisions we make tend to be small things that add up to a bigger picture, and lots of it is forward planning for things that will happen in two or three years from now. Outside of committee meetings, I’ve also spent a lot of time thinking about how to progress campaigns, meeting student leaders, university staff, planning campaign events, organising panels.”
One of the most high-profile periods for Durham SU this year was the annual officer elections, which saw a ‘Vote RON [Re-Open Nominations]’ campaign gain traction on social media, leading to 58% of all votes being cast to Re-Open Nominations. In June, the leaders of the campaign released an apology for ‘facilitat[ing] some students to express discriminatory thoughts and feelings towards others’.
McIntosh tells us that “There’s been a mediation meeting with some Common Room Presidents and SU Officers and staff members, and I am optimistic about the outcome of that. I was somewhat disappointed with the apology the RON campaign issued, because I felt like we sat in this meeting, and explained in detail how that campaign really impacted us, and jeopardized our health. And I thought we had relayed that across, but that didn’t seem to come out of the apology, which I thought was a real shame.
“Generally, my broad interpretation of the RON campaign is that it was a lot of misinformation, and a fair amount of dog-whistle racism to be honest. I was disappointed that the apology said the leaders of the RON campaign thought Durham was a more accepting place than it is, because I would hope that student leaders would understand that for lots of people Durham isn’t an accepting place, and that it is my job to try and combat that, not facilitate it.
“Throughout the election period I knew a lot of students of colour who had come to me or other student leaders who expressed, even publicly sometimes, how uncomfortable some of the rhetoric behind that campaign was for them. And some of the campaign leaders knew about this and were told and chose not to act on this, and that really frustrates me because I really had hoped that we would be better than that.
“I’m frustrated that I felt so unable to respond to it at the time publicly, but that was partly because of the environment that was created to police the SU officers, to be honest. We were harassed and bullied, screenshots of my tweets from years ago appeared in group chats. It was a really unpleasant environment and I wish I had been braver to call some of it out. But we were in a really horrible situation that had been constructed, I think, to stop us speaking about it.”
However, McIntosh also acknowledges that “Democracy isn’t as good as it could be at the SU. I’ve dealt with it for four years. I know sometimes it’s really frustrating, I don’t think you’d get anyone to argue that democracy at the Durham SU is perfect, or not in need of some serious changes, and that sort of got drowned out. And I don’t actually know how democratic it was for there to be quite a one-sided argument.
“There’s a lot of work to do still, but we do have a commitment that the ‘legacy problems’ will not be passed on. I genuinely am really optimistic that the majority of student leaders in Durham want student representation to work well, for money to be spent well, and for the culture of student leadership to be positive and welcoming. I’m optimistic that most of us want the same thing, and hope that the people who want that are brave enough to work on that together.”
The votes for RON were eliminated from the final election results, which met with substantial criticism. McIntosh tells us: “I wasn’t involved in that decision, but I don’t think it was made expecting that there wouldn’t be controversy. The disjoint between student expectations of how democracy works, and the way the rules have to be resolved for things to be fair is a really good example of why we need to spend some time working out how our democracy should work best for us. I know it was a controversial decision, and I’ve seen the report and it makes sense, yes it was less than ideal, but it was the decision that the rules delivered.”
2020 has not been an easy year for the SU President, and we ask McIntosh about what she called “Durham’s problem with respect” towards women leaders back in January, following a leaked motion of censure from the Facebook page Durfess. “When the last woman to hold this position spoke about her experiences within the university, it triggered an institutional wide investigation into disrespect – her experiences were that bad. I think my experiences have been different, but not thoroughly better.
“I actually thought, knowing that, and being someone who has held leadership positions in Durham before, that I would be prepared for this year, but I was not. There’s a long way to go before both the university and the student community has a culture that does not treat women differently. Some Senior University staff seemed slightly surprised when I introduced myself as President, bearing in mind in the last five years, four women have been President.
“There is a persistent problem with the University, where sometimes you’ll get male staff members who may, regardless of the topic, address their thoughts and comments to David [Evans, Postgraduate Academic Officer], who is the only male officer, when a woman officer was the one who asked the question. There are other things that influence this as well, it’s not just gender at all. But there is still a persistent problem with disrespect.
“Saying this, I do think that the worst part of my experience has come from the students, which is really sad because my days are spent defending students. The worst of my experience was the organization of that motion of censure. I was called ‘unsavoury’, ‘manipulative’, ‘unpleasant’, a ‘bully’, and there were obviously, clearly and provable outright lies [in the leaked minutes]. It all turned out that one of the people who organised it, the chief organiser was someone who wanted to run for SU President, and actually thought I was planning to rerun.” Palatinate wishes to confirm that this individual ultimately did not run for SU President in the 2020 elections.
“I think it’s a testament to how far misogynistic lies can go and how bad things can get for individual people. It was horrific, it really was. The real kicker for me, is that post on Durfess, the one that made up outright lies against me, went up 30 minutes before I was going to the very high level meeting to argue against the very worst elements of the College Operations Review. I was in this meeting, trying to hold it together, trying to remember all my points and all of the evidence, and the data I had collected, the only student in the room, and just falling apart thinking about all the things people were commenting about me on Facebook on this post. It was awful. And I don’t think that would have happened to my male predecessor – there are things on there you wouldn’t say about a man, you just wouldn’t.”
When asked what her ambitions were as SU President this year, McIntosh says: “I wanted to get Durham a big step further towards being a place where everyone feels at home, where students from lower income backgrounds aren’t made to feel abnormal, and where people aren’t forced to argue for their right to exist in seminars. I wanted to put international student experience and wellbeing on the agenda in university spaces.”
However, this year has been an unpredictable one for the whole world, and McIntosh acknowledges that “a series of storms blew us off course, but some of the work that I wanted to do will happen after I’m gone. I developed a training scheme for local venues in the city which will equip security staff to respond to and prevent harassment, violence and discrimination, and will hopefully make the city safer for everyone when clubs and bars reopen.
However, there are plenty of highlights from 2019-20 for McIntosh to reflect on, which she says “might be a surprise to someone from the outside looking in”.
“Some stuff didn’t happen the way I expected it to. I ran [for SU President] to change the way that the #RippedOff campaign worked, and to get us a big step further towards more affordable accommodation. Changing the aims of the campaign meant that in October I sat down with the Vice-Chancellor and got him to agree. Now there is a consensus among the University Exec Committee and to some extent the Council that we need to lower accommodation fees in Durham – that didn’t exist before. I did that!”
“There was also a recent meeting where Sam [Johnson-Audini], our Undergraduate Academic Officer, and I went to the University Executive Committee. Sam did the presenting, and the UEC agreed on nearly all the principles of the Decolonisation manifesto. That’s not my work, that Sam’s, but for them all to be convinced by a student leader who felt confident and powerful enough to be in that space, that’s easily one of the best bits of the entire year.”
Her time as SU President is now at an end, but McIntosh hopes to see further change in Durham going forward: “I want the University to be more democratic. I want staff and students to have not just decision making power but to be co-creators of the University and what we learn, what we value, how we treat each other. If Durham values its students so much, values a Durham degree and says we’re that smart then we should get more of a say in the way the university runs.
“My massive hope for the future at Durham is in the Decolonisation Campaign that was just launched. There’s so much potential for Durham to change for the good through that campaign.”
As a new officer team takes over next week, including new President Seun Twins, we ask McIntosh what advice she has for her successors, and what she would do differently now. “I wish I’d spent more time with the associations in the SU. I knew all of them, I spoke to them, but my time was taken up with other things and I should have prioritised it.”
To the new officers, she suggests: “I would say remember that if you don’t say what you want to say, no one else will say it for you. Sometimes when you’re sat in a room with people who are a lot older than you, have more experience than you and are paid 20 times what you’re paid, and you’re the only dissenting voice, you feel stupid and you’re not.”
After four years at Durham, McIntosh tells us about her plans for the future. “I would really like to work in another students’ union, to be honest – this year has really convinced me of the importance of students’ unions, and the power that they have. There are so many students who are just fantastic advocates of their peers, and with the right support and encouragement they can and have changed the world. I’m not at Durham anymore which is really sad, but I’ll be back for graduation in April!”
Image: Durham SU