Nailah Haque, former Undergraduate Officer for the Students’ Union, spoke to Palatinate about her year in the sabbatical role. She reflects on the relationship between students and University staff, the ‘Decolonise Durham’ campaign, the SU’s freedom of speech policy, and the racism that ran through the 2020 RON campaign.
Changing relationship between sabbatical officers and University staff
Haque hopes that she has significantly changed to the way that Students’ Union sabbatical officers are viewed both by University staff: “Hopefully, this year’s Officers, because they’ve been working in such precarious situations, have been able to formalise a relationship with [University staff] to the extent where they actually value the work that sabbatical officers are doing and actually are taking more time to understand and humanise students in the same way that we should humanise University exec.”
She nevertheless understands the importance of holding University staff to account: “I think it’s very easy, and it’s necessary as well to be very angry with these people.”
“The way that we interacted with the university this year will mean that the work that sabbatical officers do in the future is taken seriously first of all, but also is valued at institutional level setting.”
Haque continued saying “a very healthy working relationship” has developed this year which is necessary to make change happen: “At the end of the day, when you’re trying to do something or when you’re trying to process a project or campaign you need to get these people on your side.”
As a consequence of the dynamism of the outgoing sabbatical officers during some trying times, Haque believes that the University has undergone a shift in perspective this year: “They see why students have been angry, which obviously is a good thing.”
A mainstay of Haque’s role this past year has been the growth of the ‘Decolonise Durham’ campaign. This year, the policy has been heard at the University Senate and received support from academic staff.
Despite its successes, Haque acknowledges that the effort to decolonise academia at Durham is not over: “I didn’t think I was going to decolonise Durham in a year. I don’t think it’s going to happen next year; I don’t think it’s going to happen the year after. It is a continual process.”
“As more theories come out, as more academics come out, as more discourses develop, you continue with that process.”
Haque measured success relative to how much traction the campaign, which was fairly obscure when she began study at Durham, has gained across the whole University community: “I think it’s successful to the extent that we’re at a place where more and more people, more and more students, more and more members of staff, are engaging in the conversations, engaging in the discourse, and taking the time to be part of this wider attempt to decolonise.”
Furthermore, Haque is proud that students are now being paid by the University for their efforts to help the institution decolonise: “[Students are being] renumerated, which is something I’ve felt very strongly about. I think, if you’re providing the service and you are providing a service for an institution, they should pay you.
“University members are finally realising the value in student labour.”
“I think we have been successful; I just don’t want to make it seem like this is the end goal.”
Nevertheless, Haque suggested at the start of the last academic year that the University had ‘side-lined’ the ‘Decolonise Durham’ campaign. She shed more light on this comment, saying that the University’s bureaucratic nature meant that developments happened a lot slower than she would have liked: “These conversations about decolonising were happening in very specific places, and they could only ever happen in these very specific meetings that were every three weeks.
“My issue was that a lot of the work that I was doing was being bogged down by bureaucratic decision making, which takes a lot of time.”
The former sabbatical officer found this “jarring” because students were not seeing tangible evidence of her efforts: “A lot of the things that we were doing… was convincing the university to buy into the work and to a student that means nothing.”
“The University doesn’t understand that like students need to see progress.”
Haque believes the University needs to change how it operates to make it easier for students and student leaders to improve their University experience: “I think the University has a lot of changes to be made internally, especially if they want to work quicker. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that like Durham is very specific, in that everyone knows Durham is very slow.”
Haque is optimistic for the future of ‘Decolonise Durham’: “I do think the Students’ Union can achieve it. It’s just about the University wanting to put in the material investment, and the material resources but also the time and energy to do it and that they will.”
University response to Covid-19
Haque critiqued the University’s initial response to the coronavirus pandemic openly and honestly: “I don’t think the University plans well enough. I think they took for granted how quickly this would end.
“March 2020 rolled around, and I think that they assumed that [the pandemic] would be finished by the summer, and it meant that from March until October, they were just waiting for things to get better, and that didn’t really happen.”
Haque revealed that the University only started planning their coronavirus response for the past academic year when she began as Undergraduate Officer in July 2020 “or even later than that.”
Describing how the University were “fumbling” at the beginning of their planning stages, Haque expressed frustration because the four months between March and July could have been used to fashion a more robust response that would have better met the needs of the student population.
Haque blames the University and their disorganisation for this year’s lower standard of teaching: “It wasn’t to the standard that it should have been. I don’t think students liked it at all. I know for a fact academics didn’t like it at all. A lot of academics didn’t have the equipment, and the tools that they needed in order to provide online teaching.”
Haque fears that if the University fails to plan for the upcoming year, in case teaching needs to be adapted in light of the coronavirus pandemic once again “we’re going to be in the same problem.”
Freedom of speech
In light of the government’s Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, Haque defended the decision to introduce a policy that mandates the SU vet speakers before they attend society events: “I think the Students’ Union has a responsibility to protect students from people who want to perpetuate hatred, and want to perpetuate prejudice and bias and discrimination and division in society.”
Although she could not think of an event during her time at Durham when a speaker has caused such a disturbance, Haque said “there’s a very fine line between freedom of speech and being able to have a healthy competitive debate, and trying to dehumanise and belittle a community or a group of people who are different to you.”
“I have no regrets with the policy that came out… I think this whole conversation about freedom of speech is very interesting to me and it feels very divisive, it feels very culture war-esque.”
Haque summarised her defence by saying she does not think Durham has an issue with inviting controversial speaker: instead, the policy was a reaction to the government pressuring universities to respond to the Higher Education Bill.
Racism and RON
Asked to comment on whether she thought racism fuelled the Re-Open Nominations campaign, that ran in the election alongside her and her fellow colleagues in Epiphany 2020, Haque replied decisively in the affirmative.
She developed her viewpoint saying “it was very interesting that this happened when one of the candidates was a black woman running for President. And I don’t think there was a coincidence that we had a whole campaign that was trying to diminish the importance of representation.”
“I think the reason why it didn’t feel like a coincidence is because of the way the people who were running were targeted, because… if it was an issue with the SU, which it was I get, why were the people running for these positions… made to be like evil enemies? We were just running for the role. We weren’t even part of the SU.”
Nevertheless, she acknowledged that because the votes for RON were disqualified damage was done to the reputation of the SU: “I agree that the decision-making process wasn’t transparent. I agree that it didn’t feel like it was in the interests of students. I agree that the way that democracy was happening wasn’t actually democratic in terms of student involvement, of students being aware of the processes.
“But I also don’t think that the way that racism was enabled came out of nowhere, I don’t think that it happened in isolation.”
Haque contended that the RON campaign began with legitimate concerns about the democratic processes of the SU, concerns, she acknowledged, she has had herself: “I agreed with the sentiment. I didn’t agree with the way that I manifested.”
She considers lack of transparency and a general confusion within the students population about how the institution operates as concerns students rightly have had: “If spaces like Assembly are places that are for students, they should know how to navigate these spaces and they didn’t.”
“I think a lot of the problems were because not enough people understood what the purpose of the SU was, as we didn’t do enough to communicate what the purpose was. A lot of students did not understand why decisions were being made the way that decisions were being made.”
However, she remains discontented that the campaign morphed into a fiasco that enabled racism, resulting in a “media storm of people calling us racial slurs and people bullying Seun online.
“It didn’t have to be people sending cartoons of anime Nazi characters to on Twitter… it didn’t have to be people on Durfess calling Seun ‘aggressive’ and ‘violent’, and calling me ‘evil’.”
“So it’s very hard for me to be like ‘RON isn’t racist’ when [the campaign] enabled this to happen, to some extent, and also the timing of this attempt to call out a problem with the SU was very precarious, it was very interesting to me”
Haque remains disappointed that neither she nor Seun have received an apology after the abuse they suffered: “No one’s apologised to Seun for calling her the N-word or a monkey. No one’s apologised to me or Seun for sending us literal Nazi cartoons.”
Haque claimed it was the responsibility of those who organised the RON campaign to apologise: “[They] had to have created this space, where [people] felt like they could do this, and they could behave like this… It’s an uncomfortable responsibility to take. It’s a hard thing to accept this, but at the end of the day it happened”
“We’ve moved on, yes, but that doesn’t mean that the people responsible should feel like a weight has been lifted off their shoulders.”
“If the campaign remained true to what it was when it began, it could have gone so much easier. You could have achieved so much more, like the Democracy Review stuff that’s happening could have had probably happened a lot quicker, and in an environment that isn’t so controversial and full of tension.”
Image: Durham Students’ Union