Take your head out of the sand: Durham’s toxic culture needs an overhaul

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The fallout of Durham University’s handling of the Rod Liddle controversy continues more than six months after the infamous formal, driving a transgender member of staff to resign last month. At a South College Christmas formal last year, Rod Liddle was invited to make a speech for students attending the formal. Liddle’s speech contained examples of transphobic, racist, and sexist remarks, arguing among other things that being transgender goes against ‘science or pure facts.’ In response to the outcry that followed, the University issued an insipid comment about creating a “tolerant, inclusive University that treats others with respect, not arrogance and that listens so as to understand others.”

This employee’s departure indicates that, depressingly, Durham has once again proven itself to be neither tolerant, inclusive, nor listening to understand others. As the former employee indicates, the reason for her resignation is the university’s complete lack of “material change or engagement with marginalised groups” following the controversy. The University responded characteristically, saying it “does not accept the assertions that have been made by this individual,” and that it had “responded as swiftly and openly as possible” to the South College incident.

What is particularly telling about this incident is how well it fits into a pattern of Durham University behaviour and Durham’s culture, which is perhaps most easily described as burying its head in the sand. ‘Deny all accusations’ seems to be the management message. The university’s priority is never the health and wellbeing of its staff and students, or of creating a welcoming environment, but instead doubling down and protecting its leadership from criticism or having to take responsibility.

‘Deny all accusations’ seems to be the management message

The employee raised genuine concerns about feeling unsafe and unsupported as a trans woman due to a University-approved speaker deriding her very existence. She was met with an unwillingness to act, deflections, and finally brazen denial – although how the university can deny the validity of someone’s experience is beyond me. On a similar level, the University claiming it responded “as openly as possible” seems rather a stretch as the report into the incident, which was supposed to be ready this January, seems to have vanished without a trace – or been buried in the sand.

Put simply, the University’s inability to accept blame for this comes across as symptomatic of a culture of disregard and disdain for marginalised communities. At a different university, this employee’s concerns might have been treated with respect – but this is Durham.

This is all part of a wider pattern. Durham was one of the first universities to take advantage of the 2016 allowance for tuition fee raises, immediately going for the maximum of £9,250. Particularly post-Covid, accommodation fees have skyrocketed, not to mention the ludicrous increases in formal prices. Beyond pricing out students from lower-income backgrounds, Durham has also repeatedly indicated it has little interest in accepting them or doing anything about its reputation as a hub of classism and Thatcher-and-the-miners socials. In 2016/17, it had the fourth-lowest percentage of state school students of all higher education providers and has hovered around the same level since.

Otherwise, it seems that scandal and controversy are just going to become part of the university furniture, and those who would make Durham an inclusive place will continue to be driven away

This is to say nothing of Durham’s student culture. A report from a commission on Respect, Values and Behaviours, published in July 2020, issued a damning indictment of a recognisably-Durham ‘sense of entitlement’ and investigated “a number of discriminatory and exclusionary behaviours.”

Testimonies abound of appalling racism against non-white students – many, when reported, do not appear to be adequately resolved. While the incidents are the perpetrators’ fault rather than that of the University itself, it seems clear that such behaviour would not persist if the University punished it. Likewise, Durham achieved infamy with the 2020 freshers’ group chat scandal, which memorably featured quotes like “[George] Floyd had it coming” [sic] and casual discussions of rape. Only one of the participants had his offer rescinded – the rest were deemed to “not… have fallen short of the values we uphold,” according to a particularly tasteless University statement. How is student culture supposed to change when the top brass take such weak action?

If the University wants to correct its (wholly warranted) reputation, then it needs to undergo a monumental shift in attitude. Platitudes about tolerance and respect are not, and have never been, enough. Admitting that its culture is rotten is the first step: the second will be working with Durham’s marginalised communities to change it. Otherwise, it seems that scandal and controversy are just going to become part of the university furniture, and those who would make Durham an inclusive place will continue to be driven away.

Image: Tim Packer

One thought on “Take your head out of the sand: Durham’s toxic culture needs an overhaul

  • If “marginalised groups” are marginalised unless they get the right to police everyone else’s freedom of expression, then they should remain marginalised. Although worded provocatively, whether you like it or not, Liddle’s speech expressed views that are relatively mainstream among the British public (and yes, even students including at Durham), and it is perfectly legitimate to hold these in a liberal democracy. What isn’t legitimate is to try to harass and harangue people out of their jobs and careers for having protected philosophical beliefs. This relatively small group of loud mouthed radicals and extremists cannot even pretend to genuinely represent substantial yet alone majority student or staff opinion on campus, and the rest of us are honestly starting to get fed up.

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