Open letter accuses University of “culture of apathy towards bullying and harassment”

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An open letter claiming students “no longer trust” that the University values women’s safety as a consequence of its handling of bullying complaints has received 100 signatures from staff, students and alumni. Signatories include seven current JCR presidents, and covers organisations representing over 8,000 Durham students.

The letter, addressed to Pro-Vice-Chancellors Professor Antony Long and Jeremy Cook and head of human resources, Joanne Race, accuses the University of “allowing abuses of power, bullying or harassment to continue”.

The University said it condemns incidents of bullying, harassment or misogyny in the strongest possible terms, and that it will take action in line with its policies.

It comes after The Guardian revealed that the current Principal of Trevelyan College, Professor Adekunle Adeyeye faced allegations of intimidating behaviour including misogynistic comments. It is alleged that two people filed formal complaints against Adeyeye, and also that a further three members of staff left the College amid concerns regarding his conduct.

A member of staff described Adeyeye to The Guardian as aggressive, speaking with “venom and nastiness” in exchanges that took one colleague “close to a breakdown”. This individual later stopped working at the college. Other accounts of his behaviour claimed that he “engendered fear” and created an “awful atmosphere”. Several colleagues also noted that this was part of a wider problem with bullying at the University.

“Students and staff must join forces to dismantle this culture of permissiveness towards tackling bullying, harassment and misogyny.”

President of Durham University Intersectional Feminist Society

Professor Adeyeye stepped down from his role on the University’s Respect Oversight Group, which oversees the University’s bullying policy. However, the Professor remained in his role as a College Principal, prompting several members of Durham’s alumni community to tell Palatinate they decided to withhold regular donations to the University.

The letter claims that the issues surrounding the investigation of these allegations are an example of a “culture of apathy towards bullying and harassment” amongst staff and students. It cites earlier cases such as an investigation by Palatinate, which revealed that three-quarters of bullying and harassment claims reported using the University’s Report and Support tool have been submitted by women.

It also refers to a 2020 report by the University which found that 1 in 3 women employed in the colleges division of the University have experienced harassment, and the posting of messages by freshers in group chats last year, which included concerns over being accused of rape, suggestions of using female students for sex, and approving comments about the death of George Floyd.

One male student had their offer to study at the University withdrawn following the publishing of the screenshots on the Facebook group, Overheard at Durham Uni. Two other males implicated in the screenshots were able to keep their offers to study at the University.

The letter calls for a re-evaluation of the University’s handling of complaints, stating that failures to take action and procedural delays have led students to lose trust in Durham’s management.

President of Durham University Intersectional Feminist Society, Anya Chuykov, accused the University of “complacency” with regards to its handling of complaints. She said: “The university should be setting an example at an administrative level. Instead, it is showing both students and staff that poor behaviour can be excused and that their safety and concerns are not worthy of attention.

“This is not an isolated incident, and the behaviour of Durham University speaks to the toxic atmosphere that so many students and staff must live with at universities and schools up and down the country. Students and staff must join forces to dismantle this culture of permissiveness towards tackling bullying, harassment and misogyny.”

“We condemn any incidents of bullying, harassment or misogyny in the strongest possible terms” 

Durham University

An anonymous member of Durham University staff is cited in the letter as saying: “It is encouraging to see students stand side by side with teaching and support staff, who sadly often are not supported adequately by Durham University.

“It is deeply saddening to learn that students’ lived experiences at Durham and the treatment of university staff has led them to fear for their own safety.

“It is easy for Durham to say that everyone has the right to work in an environment of respect, and that in all cases procedures are followed, but the shocking statistics that show one in three women working in colleges at Durham University have experienced harassment demonstrates quite simply that either their policies are not being followed or that they fall desperately short in their ability to protect staff and students.

“In light of this letter, Durham University must prove that ensuring a safe environment to study and work is their top priority, or else they will lose the trust of staff and students forever.”

A university spokeswoman said: “We condemn any incidents of bullying, harassment or misogyny in the strongest possible terms and will take action in line with our published policies.

“We are always open to hearing directly from students or staff regarding concerns or suggestions and would welcome the opportunity to meet the organisers of the open letter to understand their experiences as well as the evidence.

“We have recently taken measures to promote openness and transparency on student conduct cases through publicly communicating outcomes and we are working with students to rebuild confidence that we will listen, investigate promptly and take decisive action.”

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