Major University report resolves to ‘do better’ to challenge ‘rude, unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour’

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Durham University has today published a report which reveals “negative behaviours” among its staff and students, including bullying and harassment, misogyny, classism and racist micro-aggressions. The report concludes that “we can and must do better” and sets out a series of measures which aim to eradicate these behaviours in favour of “a culture of respect”.

The report was produced by the Durham Commission on Respect, Values, and Behaviour, a group of 19 individuals including both staff and student representatives. The Commission was launched in October 2018 with the goal to “ensure that the quality of the experience [at Durham] is the same for everyone”, and has now released its findings.

The report covers a range of “negative behaviours”, including bullying and harassment, a lack of faith in reporting mechanisms, a “status-oriented culture”, and mistreatment of professional (non-academic) staff members. It also addresses issues which have arisen “directly from the specific culture at Durham”, among them discrimination and exclusion, a “culture of fear”, a sense that certain staff are “untouchable”, elitism within college communities, misogyny, racist micro-aggressions towards BAME staff, lack of consideration for disabled access, and a “sense of privileged entitlement” from some students.

Among University staff, the report details accounts of how senior staff are “protect[ed] from scrutiny”, as well as other certain staff members being seen as “untouchable” and whose regular bad behaviour goes unchecked. Specific examples included a “blame culture” in which staff are heavily criticised for mistakes, a lack of respect for those with degrees or qualifications from certain institutions, a treatment of non-academic staff as “second-class citizens” compared to their academic colleagues, and numerous examples of misogyny and racism. 

The report mentions how female staff members often find themselves expected to tidy up, provide refreshments and take minutes in meetings, and BAME staff have faced microaggressions including “underhanded comments”, the presumption that they are assistant or junior staff members, and “mocking of international accents and names”. Of everyone surveyed, female staff from ethnic minorities reported experiencing the “lowest level of respect” at Durham.

Additionally, the report mentions complaints that the University has attempted to “raise visibility” of diversity by, for example, ensuring that publicity photos appear diverse, rather than “addressing fundamental and underlying problems” at the University itself. 

“The publication of the Respect Commission is an important step for Durham.”

Fiona Ellis, a former member of the University Council, was the Commission’s Independent Chair. Other members included former SU President George Walker, former Welfare and Liberation Officer Meg Haskins, and the now outgoing Welfare and Liberation Officer Amelia McLoughlan.

The report, a 53-page document which details the Commission’s methodology, findings (positive and negative) and recommendations, was due to be published in March 2020 but was postponed due to the onset of lockdown at the time.

To produce the report, the Commission interviewed staff, students and recent graduates, carried out a survey and spoke to focus groups, as well as using existing evidence, for example the Health and Wellbeing Survey, which all students are invited to complete each year.

In an interview with Palatinate, Vice-Chancellor Stuart Corbridge said that “the University Executive Committee must look at itself” following this report, and that “all members of the Executive need to be visible and available”. He added that “This report is very informative and  very balanced, reflected by the fact it was set up to be independent. I encouraged [the Commission] not to pull any punches.”

The report also addresses the student experience and behaviour at Durham, in particular the “privileged entitlement demonstrated by some students”, and “a culture of elitism” within the colleges. It cites a lack of diversity among the student body, as well as the fact that some colleges come with additional hidden costs like gowns, expensive ball tickets and formal dinners, which some students either cannot afford or do not feel comfortable attending.

Professor Corbridge told Palatinate, “I’m a fan of collegiate universities, it gives people a sense of affiliation and community, creating a culture of affection in the sense of kindness and gentleness, and that density of interaction is a great strength of the University.

“In any community the size of a college, there will be forms of behaviour which need to be addressed on an ongoing basis. Everybody should be able to flourish in the University, everyone should feel included, and no one should feel marginalised. 

“There is no particular reason to suppose that colleges are more damaging environments than any other form of association. Colleges, along with every other part of university, need to have conversations about this now.”

The report details how 25% of staff who work in colleges have experienced harassment and bullying, the highest proportion of any group within the University. In particular, college housekeeping staff have reported being “treated as invisible” and faced rudeness from other staff, students and even visiting parents.

“the University Executive Committee must look at itself.”

Stuart Corbridge

However, the report also notes that “examples of good practice, positive behaviours and respect were found across all parts” of Durham University. One individual quoted in the report describes a “radical change in the last three or four years in recognising and dealing with unprofessional behaviours” as well as “advances in equality and diversity”. The report states that “members, on the whole, find the University to be a friendly and supportive community”.

The Commission has also included twenty recommendations in the report, which will be enacted by a “Working Group” over the next twelve months. These include the appointment of a new Vice-Provost with specific responsibilities for equality and diversity, and additional resources and funding for the Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) team. 

Additionally, bystander intervention training will be rolled out to all staff and students, and new students will be given a more detailed discussion during Freshers’ Week of the behaviour expected of them. ‘Respect’ will also be added to the University’s list of values, which is currently ‘Inspiring’, ‘Challenging’, ‘Innovative’, ‘Responsible’ and ‘Enabling’.

Professor Corbridge has told Palatinate that all twenty of these recommendations will be enacted: “All parts of the University have to have a conversation over the next year, and then take action over the next three years – every college, every department, every professional service and every committee must look at this report, hold up the mirror, and see what they can do better”.

“This report asks us to take a look at ourselves, what we can do differently and what we can do better, what are we observing, how do we listen to each other? As a University, we are absolutely clear: intolerance, discrimination and disrespect are not acceptable and we have a strong will to improve.”

The release of this report was delayed by four months from March 2020, after Durham closed its doors due to the pandemic. Professor Corbridge acknowledged that the University is “facing potentially a very difficult year” financially, but confirmed that “COVID-19 will not financially affect the workings of [putting the report into action], though my only concern is that some international students will not be in Durham in October.

“We have to think about how to engage those students, as it’s important that everyone engages with it. Financially, the money will be there, but we will commit our management time to this as well.”

Kate McIntosh, Durham SU President, said: “The publication of the Respect Commission is an important step for Durham. Whilst the Report speaks to institutional problems, we must not forget the very personal impact the problems outlined have on individuals. 

“We should also remember that some people are much more likely than others to experience disrespect, particularly women, People of Colour, disabled people, and LGBT+ people. We should never make the mistake of framing prejudice as impoliteness. 

“We need more people to stand up against disrespect, intolerance and prejudice. This can’t just be the work of a handful of elected student leaders alone. We can either carry on as we are, and in ten years’ time a similar report may show little has changed. Or we can hold ourselves to a higher standard and make the future better.”

Image: Andreas Polydorides (@follow.andreas on Instagram)

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