I did not know what Durham University’s values were until I looked them up. Turns out, they are: inspiring, challenging, innovative, responsible, and enabling. Considering this year’s events, such as those of South College, one might question whether inclusivity should be added to the list. The University could argue that inclusivity would be a fundamental value that underlies the existing five, but does the University really encourage inclusiveness?
I can confidently check most of the boxes in the diversity section of forms because I am a queer, neurodivergent, mentally ill Asian woman. Friends have told me that I should use this to my advantage. This, in itself, is a questionable statement. However, because of my identity, I am incredibly aware of the extent to which I belong in a given environment. In my house I am the only non-white person; I am so scared to hold a girl’s hand when walking down the Bailey; and I was beyond anxious to accept an invitation to sit at the college high table for a Lunar New Year formal because what if I was simply their ‘token Asian’?
Discrimination because of race is, unfortunately, a common scene in, and beyond, Durham. My friend, who is black, was once approached and asked why are there “so many of you people around”. When my friend questioned the individual, he responded that he “didn’t know you people would come to this part of this world”. I was furious when I found out, but also frustrated because I was unable to do anything.
Now, it would be unjust for me to comment on Durham’s environment without collating other people’s opinions. After all, everybody’s experience in this city and university is different. Perhaps their stories would change my beliefs. So, I chatted with some members of the University to understand their views and came to some shocking revelations.
A recent graduate showed her exasperation on how now that she is out of Durham, she feels a lot freer and can express herself more. This is a thought that was shared amongst many that I spoke to. As a first-generation scholar from a working-class background, the graduate found many ‘old boys club’ groups very alien and felt excluded from certain parts of the Durham culture. More extremely, she was put off from ever speaking with any pride in her background around certain people. This is because when she once voiced an opinion about her upbringing, she was assaulted. A privately educated peer verbally harassed her while pinning her against a wall.
This lack of inclusiveness is felt amongst staff as well. For example, during online lectures last year, staff were told to provide captions for their recorded lectures. Non-British lecturers with stronger accents were thus burdened with an increased workload to edit the autogenerated captions. Apparently, BAME lecturers and those with non-native accents would receive consistently worse module evaluation questionnaire scores from students. Is this correlation or causation? Concerning, either way, I believe.
Age also seems to be an issue within departments. New and younger staff members are required to stick together and assist each other with any arising issues, because more senior members are reluctant to help. Junior staff also feel as though their voices cannot be heard in department boards and panels because their suggestions are often quickly shut down without any consideration due to their inexperience. How are departments supposed to evolve without listening to everyone seriously?
I was also told that one PhD programme decided to interview candidates based on ‘diversity points’. This is essentially when potential students get a ‘bump-up’ if they have a ‘disadvantage’. However, this rule only applies to UK home students, so any international students with a disability, for example, will not be eligible for this shortlisting. Firstly, this goes against all possible definitions of inclusivity; and secondly, I would be very tempted to interpret it as ‘pitying’ marginalised groups in the name of diversity.
So, rather than a value that should be incorporated into the University’s statement, inclusivity seems to be an underlying issue that is ingrained in the institution’s core. Durham University prides itself on inspiring its people to achieve greatness. Yet, how can we do that if we need to be cautious of every move we make and every word we speak in order to prevent ourselves from being attacked? Are we a ‘tight-knit community’ made of oppressive strands? Most importantly, how can we succeed at anything when we are terrified of being ourselves because of our background and identity — things that should make us proud and unique?
Illustration credit: Rosie Bromiley