New Durham and tradition: repurposed for good?


Durham is grounded in traditions, as the third-oldest university in the country (despite what KCL and UCL may claim). Durham has been collegiate from its very foundation. Other traditions, such as gowned formals, matriculation ceremonies, and inter-collegiate rivalries have been handed down from one year to the next. Many of these traditions now face their most intense scrutiny for decades. This is no bad thing: if university students were not critically engaging with and thinking about the environment they live in, that would imply a deficiency in the teaching of said university. Nastier traditions – equal in centrality to more positive ones – are being pushed back against. 

Consider Durham from one viewpoint: these traditions are richly steeped in heritage and are an element of a shared community stretching back generations; and yet, from another viewpoint: a University physically estranged from the backgrounds of a vast majority of its students, with a collegiate tradition steeped in the sense of a class-based society. How should we consider these viewpoints, at a time where tensions over education and metrics of achievement are raged over; at a time when even the Student’s Union is examining the culture of Durham via a specially established commission?

Tradition is part of that, and Durham is no different

It cannot be denied that university is a social and not just an academic institution, even going beyond a collegiate or traditional assessment. Half of school leavers now go onto further education and not for purely career-based or educational purposes. You often hear university students talk about ‘the experience’ in almost mythical terms — you have it or you don’t.

Something about leaving home and the world you know to join a group of complete strangers appeals to us, and that something has to do with this perceived inclusion. Tradition is a part of that, and Durham is no different. But we must be aware that this sense of being a part of something is a tool, not an independent force, and we should always be wary of who wields it. 

We have to be willing to work to make the University a better place than we found it

Take some of the less pleasant things done in the name of tradition. Even this past week, the cruel and dominating hazing process for rugby initiates has been criticised and denounced. If you search the Palatinate archives (and even occasionally our notoriety reaches national newspapers), you’re likely to find almost an incident like this a year. The fact that this conduct is renounced by captains and presidents does little to assuage the fact that it is present, somewhere, in the implicit assumption that these are things that Durham clubs do.

In a more general but no less unpleasant sense, Durham has a reputation for racist and sexist conduct that permeates people’s understanding of us as a collective and as individuals. According to the ethnicity data released by the University for the academic year 2020/21, 339 undergraduate students in 2021 were Black/ mixed-race, of 15,993 students, or about 2.1% of the student undergrad population.

As a Durham student, it’s unpleasant to acknowledge this — and that is at least partially because many of us feel that unspoken connection to the underlying bond to this University. In the same way I look back on my senior school, I imagine I’ll consider my time at Durham as formative and well spent — but in order to feel that sense of pride, we have to be willing to work to make the University a better place than we found it.

Students should have the wisdom to call out unacceptable behaviour

Tradition is a tool, and it’s not only those who misuse it that can have influence over it. Josephine Butler, a college founded in the name and principles of a feminist who fought against laws enacted in oppression by those who attended places like Durham, conducts the same gowned formals as Hatfield or Hild Bede. 

Palatinate has examined the conduct of the University for over 70 years, serving not just students but the local community. Where modern denunciations of abuses of tradition and of distortions of culture go wrong is in refusing to stake their own claim. Students should have the wisdom to call out unacceptable behaviour and the courage to make sure that their and everyone else’s university experience isn’t diminished by it, that Durham can both be a place where students from diverse backgrounds come together and celebrate traditions handed down to them.

Stand for the college principal’s speech, scream for your college at the Durham Regatta, argue with Stevenson over a mound. This university, and all the rich history, debate, and drama it entails, is yours — and everyone else’s — if you are willing to stand up and reclaim it.


3 thoughts on “New Durham and tradition: repurposed for good?

  • There’s much to agree with here, but still things that jar:

    “these are things that Durham clubs do”
    No, these are the things that many CLUBS do. Durham isn’t special in that respect. Sports clubs of many types across the country have initiation and rites. Of course, they vary, and many of them are not in the realms of the Diced Carrot Club of years past. They shouldn’t really exist, but mere enforcement isn’t going to stop them, because in the end sports teams, like every other part of the University’s life, is about people. In the end, it’s those people who have to not want to do it, or we have to filter out the toxic ones who do before they get here.

    “Durham has a reputation for racist and sexist conduct that permeates people’s understanding of us as a collective and as individuals”
    This is rather more complicated, but the hardest one to argue against. Perhaps we should be considering that even those numbers have been bolstered in recent years by an increasing (and welcome) overseas student presence, and that the lack of ethnic diversity in the historic population is partly down to a wider problem with the intake. Much of our historic population has been selected from very particular strata of British society, and those strata have predominantly been white, male, and rooted in a very particular social and educational background. And it’s not surprising, because this place, like the other old universities, was specifically designed to be the finishing school for exactly those people. Entry was designed to favour people like them. That others got to dine on the crumbs occasionally was not a goal, but a side effect of that process. That began to change even as far back after WWI with changes to the education system that widen access and provided funding for those students who didn’t hail form such privileged backgrounds. By the 80s that included people like me, and many of my friends, but even then we were not the majority. Sometime now it feels as if we are going backwards, and it also feels as if that is by the design of some, mostly beyond our walls.

    “[Josephine Butler] … conducts the same gowned formals as Hatfield or Hild Bede”
    Yes, but many colleges don’t. I was at one of them. The same college that didn’t gown for matriculation either.
    College traditions and characters are strange things. The example of Hatfield is a strange on too, given that in its day it was revolutionary for introducing the kind of collegiate dining we have now as a tangible way of creating equality, to replace a system even more rooted in class and privilege, where students’ own servants might be called upon to prepare their meals. College traditions evolve through generations. The traditions handed down as immutable now have in fact often mutated within even a single generation. And in many cases those traditions are changed not by the corporate body of the University, but by students: the JCRs, MCRs, and the SU have all moved those traditions along, made them fit the times and the people who were members of this place at the time. That is how cultures evolve. If you don’t like the culture, then change it, because you can, and you should, to leave your imprints on the history of this place.

    For a long time I have thought we have needed a history of this place. not one told from the viewpoint of the institution itself, but one told by the individuals. A demotic history. The places we went, the college traditions, the slang. To remember these things is to have power, because the easiest way to exercise control to to try and wipe away your history, and the memory of yourself.

    • Oops. That should be WWII

  • Many students apply to Durham because of tradition. If they dont want that, they can apply to a less traditional college or elsewhere. My time at VM allowed me to experience some of these traditions which were not commonplace at my conprehensive in Hull. Learning for life ! You are in danger of making Durham like every other university !


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