Note: this article includes accounts which some readers may find upsetting.
A Palatinate investigation has revealed accusations of sustained malpractice and abuses of power within the Durham Union Society (DUS), including bullying, unaddressed bigotry, and the mishandling of complaints.
The Union Society has been described by some members as a ‘zero-sum political game’, afflicted by systemic failings, cronyism, and negligence in holding wrongdoers to account.
The Union Society is the largest and oldest student society at Durham, and holds regular debates and addresses. It is also responsible for managing the bar at 24 North Bailey.
The Union Society is an independent organisation, with its own trustees. It is not run by Durham University or even, as with many student societies, run in conjunction with Durham Students’ Union (Durham SU).
Many students have described their positive experiences of DUS events. First-year student James Adamson told Palatinate: “It’s a great institution that has given me opportunities to improve my debating skills, meet amazing speakers and immerse myself in a part of Durham’s social life. I really hope those in charge can sort out these problems and make the Union the best it can be.”
Kitty Ellison, another first-year member of the Union Society, said: “While there is a clear need for reform within the Durham Union Society, my experience throughout this year has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Attending regular debate training has made me a more confident and articulate person and I can only hope that great policies already implemented by Durham Debate (such as an equity and pronouns policy) can be rolled out across the entire Union Society.”
However, these positive experiences are far from unanimous. Despite advertising itself as a “free speech society”, some have described it as a place in which “certain people feel as if they can be as awful as they want without consequence.”
Samrat Pasriccha, a former Steward of the DUS, said: “The Union Society has become a safe haven for racists, demagogues, and colonial apologists.
“I have witnessed outrageous amounts of outright racism and xenophobia extended to international students within the Union Society. To quote just some of the statements I’ve heard – ‘The sun will rise on the British Empire again’ and ‘Multilingual debating, ha, like we need more foreigners in this place’. It is a form of bullying made under the guise of free speech.
“I joined the Union Society for its debates, but the structural protection it offered to xenophobes has made it difficult for people like me to interact with the society like any white member could.”
At a General Committee meeting, a complaint was made against these comments by Anasuya Narasimhan, then the Outreach Officer of the Union Society.
According to Narasimhan, “I was met with significant outcry – not at the alleged comments, but rather at the fact I was bringing them up.
“My concerns were dismissed, as they felt it was more important for us all to ‘get along’, but bigotry does not affect everyone the same way. For some of us, it belittles and questions our very existence.
“The general lack of will within the Union Society to take calls for accountability on this seriously just protected the perpetrators, and disregarded the welfare of marginalised groups.”
Another member of the DUS said that “the Union Society’s internal mechanisms are resistant to holding bigoted behaviour to account.
“The trend of protecting these people from criticism and accountability, whilst they insulted the victims and ensured the environment was as hostile as possible, is what most aptly describes the Society.”
Former Union Society President (Easter 2020), Eduardo Enamorado, said of the bigotry allegations: “I take these issues very seriously and understand clearly that while we are a free speech society, words can have a profound impact.
“I believe that for discussions to be productive they must be open and inclusive to all participants. For these reasons I’m working hard on proposals to increase participation, working on a code of conduct, and trying to improve our internal mechanisms with an Equalities Committee.”
Despite this history, some progress has been made to make the DUS more diverse and inclusive. The Union Society has increased its proportion of female speakers from 24% in Easter Term 2019 to 31% in Easter Term 2020, and the number of BAME speakers giving addresses has jumped from 17% to 66%.
As well as historic allegations of ineffective methods of dealing with bigotry, the Union Society recently passed an amendment to their constitution which some members have called “undemocratic”.
Prior to these amendments, any member who had attended ten General Committee meetings – held fortnightly – would be eligible to run for the presidency in any term.
Typically, members are elected to the General Committee by the General Membership (anyone who is a card-carrying Union member). At the beginning of each term, candidates for the General Committee stand in front of ordinary members and give a hust.
The new amendments ensure that only candidates who have served on the Standing Committee may run for President for Michaelmas and Epiphany Terms, unless the returning officer receives no nominations in the first instance.
The amendments only affected Michaelmas and Epiphany Terms; there is no such requirements for candidates running for Easter Presidency.
“The Union is at its best when members are able to give presidential candidates strong mandates. This amendment will only lead to further disenfranchisement of ordinary members.”
The individuals who proposed these amendments declined to comment.
Members who hold positions within the DUS have corroborated claims of an atmosphere of bullying and harassment.
One former Union Society Officer told Palatinate, “I was messaged by a member of the Union Society and told to quit my role repeatedly, and was berated for the job I’d been doing, and made to feel very unwelcome, so I quit not long after this.
“The last few General Committee meetings were extremely uncomfortable, horrific environments… attendance dropped in Epiphany Term because it was awkward for a lot of members, and some officers resigned as they did not feel it was a safe place.”
Another incident involved an officer who admitted on a group chat to pushing a female student and calling her a “whore”.
The individual held positions on more than one committee at the time of this incident, and was not subjected to any disciplinary action afterwards.
Regarding allegations of a culture of bullying, Enamorado said: “I think that atmosphere was present and I was vocal about this in my [presidential] campaign for Easter Term. The notion that the Union Society is something more important than a student debating society allows for political games to be played behind the curtains.
“The overall student community should respond to those attempts of progress to enable a more inclusive environment that places relevant issues at the forefront of organised civil discourse.”
Another former DUS officer added: “The Union Society has made me and my friends feel uncomfortable; I think there was a vendetta against us – the majority of whom are Labour supporters – that sought to insult me in order to make me leave.”
Some members have also criticised the perceived influence of the Durham University Conservative Association (DUCA) within the DUS. A significant number of officerships within the Union Society are held by individuals affiliated with DUCA. This includes six of the eight members of last term’s Rules Committee last term.
One member said: “Personally, I feel that a lot of the hostility within the Union comes from the Durham University Conservative Association, but differing political opinions doesn’t justify treating people badly.”
A first-year member of the DUS reported feeling “afraid to act in certain ways in the Union, and feared bullying from senior people within DUCA”.
Enamorado commented: “I cannot deny the Union Society has a strong Conservative influence. Nonetheless, we have a lot of Union Society members that are also part of a diverse range of political societies.
“The relevant aspect here is the level of involvement in the administrative and senior roles of the Union Society, to which I do think historically there has been a strong correlation with members of the Conservative Association.
“Constitutionally, the society is responsible for treating students from all political affiliations the same, providing an environment that invites all Durham students.
“The Union Society has some cultural obstacles that conflict with our constitutional duty. I think it is always worth reflecting on what we can do to improve and probably reconsider inappropriate decisions that were made in the past.”
DUCA has not responded to Palatinate’s requests for comment.
In one instance, an officer emailed a speaker ahead of time, warning them that the Union Society at the time had a “weak, ineffectual President who won’t stand up to extreme leftists.”
They added that a future “President is [an executive committee member] of DUCA who won’t stand for it.” The repercussions faced by this individual was the Rules Committee’s recent ban, preventing them from standing in any further Union Society elections.
This stands in contrast to the case of a Union Society Officer who sent an email to speakers warning them of the atmosphere of racism and homophobia that they had experienced. For this action, the officer in question was stripped of their position and banned from all Union Society events and premises for one year. The reason cited was “bringing the Union [Society] into disrepute.”
When asked if DUS is the free and open society it aims to be, Enamorado replied: “The Union Society has offered me, and many of the people I know, some very enriching and rewarding opportunities. It is a truly great society to be a part of but, like any student society, we are submerged within the same wider issues of representation and diversity present at university.
“We can only be as open and diverse as the university community around us allows us to be. The Union Society revolves completely and utterly around people. We try to encourage as many members and prominent speakers to come to contribute to our debates.”
Kate McIntosh, President of Durham Students’ Union, told Palatinate: “You don’t need to look too far to see that incidents of racism aren’t uncommon in Durham.
“Durham is all about community and tradition, but the Union Society allows racists to hide behind these notions. It isn’t the only place where this happens, but it’s surely one of the most well-known.
McIntosh linked issues within the Union Society to broader ones within the University. However, it is worth reiterating that the Union Society is run independently of the University and of Durham SU, with its own trustees.
McIntosh said: “Durham SU takes its responsibility to hold the University accountable for its failure to act on racism very seriously. How many scandals will it take for the University to take robust action and remove racists from campus?
“Durham SU is working to ensure that reporting these kinds of incidents is as easy as possible, and that students have reason to trust that action will be taken. We’re also lobbying the University to invest in a project to Decolonise the Curriculum, alongside the People of Colour Association.
“Sometimes, there’s no debate to be had – racism is abhorrent and our curriculum shouldn’t uphold or excuse it. And, the University should take specific action when it comes to student organisations we all know have a problem.”
In response to Palatinate’s findings, Jennifer Sewel, University Secretary, Durham University, said: “Durham Union Society is an independent charity with separate governance arrangements to Durham University. However, we expect our students to uphold the values of our University community at all times.
“We condemn all racism and hate crime in the strongest possible terms. We are working to build a safe, respectful and inclusive environment. We acknowledge we have more to do to make this a reality for everyone, but we are working hard to achieve this.”
The University’s action to challenge racism includes signing the Race Equality Charter in March 2019, introducing an online Report and Support system for students and staff to report unwanted behaviour, and an upcoming report on the University’s Commission on Respect, Values and Behaviour. This report is the result of a year-long study, and all of its recommendations have been endorsed by the University’s governing body. The University is expected to set out steps to support the implementation of these changes shortly.
*Rose Kohen is a pseudonym; the author does not wish to be named.
Image: Peter Bonnett via Flickr