Students involved in last week’s protest over the events at a South College Christmas formal are discussing their next steps should Principal Professor Tim Luckhurst remain in position following a University investigation, due to conclude in mid-January. Protest organisers told Palatinate that South students are considering withholding rent for college accommodation and applying to change colleges en masse next term.
In a statement to Palatinate this afternoon, the Vice-Chancellor encouraged everyone to let the ongoing investigation be conducted “fairly and impartially”, saying “everybody’s voice matters”. Professor Luckhurst said on Thursday that he shared the University’s “commitment to creating an inclusive community”.
The University’s transfer policy specifies that changes to college membership during a programme of study are only permitted for “exceptional reasons” and require approval from the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) or their designates. Students are occasionally transferred for reasons relating to welfare or discipline, for example, if two students involved in a disciplinary matter are at the same college.
Organisers have discussed requesting transfers by citing the welfare implications of remaining at South College with Professor Luckhurst as Principal.
“Nothing is off the table”, Niall Hignett, a first-year South student instrumental in the protests, told Palatinate. “Students no longer want to be here, so either [Luckhurst] leaves or we do”.
He continued, “We won’t rest until we feel safe in our homes. That involves Tim no longer being our Principal and the University reviewing their policies to ensure these foul individuals are not platformed by the University … if Tim and the University want a fight, they’ve got one.”
Durham Students’ Union Welfare and Liberation Office Jonah Graham told Palatinate the SU would “respond accordingly” once the report has been released, “and if needed consider further campaign tactics.”
Graham stressed that “we remain focussed on the simple fact that Luckhurst has failed in his duty of care” and that “the fastest and cleanest way to see justice is for Professor Jane Macnaughton to objectively consider in her investigation if this conduct is something we’re proud of and shows Durham at its best.”
At Wednesday’s protest, South College JCR President Sean Hannigan expressed support for a possible rent strike at last week’s protest, telling around 300 students that “the only way that the University will listen is if it hits them financially”.
Jamie Halliwell, the head of Durham’s Working Class Students’ Association, told The Times that the group “would support” a rent strike “if we come back next term and there is still not adequate action taken by the University”.
The results of the University’s investigation into the events surrounding columnist Rod Liddle’s appearance as a guest speaker at a college Christmas formal on 3rd December are expected to be announced in January 2022.
Several academic departments and almost all colleges have written to students offering welfare support in the aftermath of the event. Professor Maggi Dawn, Principal of St. Mary’s College, wrote to students to “reaffirm our commitment as a College to the values of tolerance and inclusivity”, whilst the Faculty of Modern Languages and Cultures released a statement in which it offered “utmost support to, and pride in, the students of South College, the members of the Durham LGBT+ community, our students and staff of colour”, and Students’ Union officers, who have called for the Principal’s removal.
The controversy surrounding Liddle’s speech has attracted national media attention, with Durham Students’ Union officers and South JCR President Sean Hannigan coming under fire. SU President Seun Twins responded to recent media coverage and online “vitriol” by saying, “I am not the face of the culture wars, just trying to stand up for Durham students”.
Durham University also released a statement of support, saying: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with Seun Twins”. Local City of Durham MP Mary Foy expressed “solidarity” with Twins, commenting: “This is abhorrent. No one deserves abuse like this.”
Foy also said Liddle should not have been invited to speak at South, saying “nobody has a right to a platform, especially when they have repeatedly expressed objectionable views”. She added “I’ll be raising this with the Vice-Chancellor and will be asking to be kept informed of the investigation.”
Meanwhile Lord Wharton, the chairman of the Office for Students (OfS), which is responsible for regulating universities, intervened yesterday. He told The Telegraph that “it is important for students to engage with views and theories with which they may not agree” and that it is “right for universities to invite a range of speakers to events, including those who might hold or express views in a polemical way”.
The Free Speech Union, of which Professor Luckhurst is a member, is providing him legal representation and has written to the Vice-Chancellor to raise their concerns. In a statement in the Daily Mail, the Union argued that in calling students walking out of the formal “pathetic”, Professor Luckhurst was “exercising his right to free speech and penalising him for doing so could well be a breach of the law that requires universities to uphold free speech on campus”.
Chairman of the House of Commons education select committee, Robert Halfon, also addressed the SU’s demands for Luckhurst’s removal. The Conservative MP accused students of launching a “witch-hunt against a respected academic”. He explained that he does not have a problem “with students demonstrating, as is their right, but trying to get Tim Luckhurst sacked is ridiculous”.
In a statement this afternoon, Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Antony Long said: “Durham University upholds freedom of expression within the law. There is a strong and clear University policy statement and code of practice on freedom of expression and we practise this across all areas of University life.
“Being able to express very different views in a way which shows tolerance and respect for others goes to the heart of what we value as a University. We encourage and welcome debate. If our community is to demonstrate an ability to speak and be heard, we also need to ensure that there is good listening and reflection.
“As with many universities, we are experiencing significant societal change and the opportunities and challenges that brings. We are a more diverse institution than we have ever been across our staff and student body.
“There is strength in that diversity and the range of personal experiences, beliefs and perspectives. Everybody’s voice matters. I would like to thank everybody who has contacted me to express respectfully a wide range of views and opinions in relation to events at South College. For now, I encourage everybody to let what is an ongoing investigation be conducted fairly and impartially until it concludes in the New Year.”
In a statement on Thursday, Professor Luckhurst said: “I share Durham University’s commitment to creating an inclusive community where everyone is entitled to respect and dignity. I believe in the importance of lawful free speech and the value of debating controversial ideas, particularly at university which is a space for personal and intellectual growth.”
Correction: This article previously referred to the University college transfer policy that applied to students wishing to change college before starting their course of study. It has now been updated to clarify the University’s position regarding mid-study college transfers.
Image: Iori Sean Thorpe