By Poppy Askham
A transgender staff member has resigned from their position at Durham University in reaction to senior management’s handling of the South College incident last December.
The employee, who left the University earlier this month, explained in a resignation email to Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost Antony Long that she had made the decision due to a lack of “material change or engagement with marginalised groups” in the wake of the incident.
“It is unfortunate that an outcome of this debacle is the departure of a trans woman, rather than the removal of a man who abused his position of power over the students in his care,” she wrote.
“I do not believe that the leadership on this issue […] has been appropriate or sufficient.”
Durham’s UCU branch greeted the news of her departure with “dismay”, noting that the former staff member’s “deep and longstanding commitment to issues of diversity, equality and inclusion has been a valuable asset to the university.”
The Union branch told Palatinate: “Allowing a trans member of staff to resign over the university’s inadequate response to a significant transphobic incident once again sends a troubling message about the sincerity of management’s commitment to promoting equality, diversity and inclusion.”
“We wish to state unequivocally: Durham UCU stands with members of all those communities who were targeted in (and in the aftermath of) the incident at South College, including trans and non-binary people. We again call on university management to do better.”
The University responded to the staff member and DUCU’s comments, saying it “does not accept the assertions that have been made by this individual or the UCU” and noting that it “responded as swiftly and openly as possible” to the South College incident.
A University spokesperson said, “The individual has previously communicated extensively with members of the Executive, sharing concerns regarding the South College event. The University has gone to significant lengths to engage with those concerns, in writing and in face-to-face meetings including with the PVC EDI and thereafter the Provost and Deputy Vice-Chancellor.
“Following those meetings, the University requested further information and evidence. While no further evidence was provided to the University, where possible, the issues raised were followed up by the University. However, the allegations could not be verified.”
The staff member claims no further correspondences were made requesting evidence following the meeting with senior staff.
Durham UCU said the former staff member’s efforts to raise concerns show that “the University has had ample opportunity to reflect on the incident and to respond to it in ways which advance diversity, equality, and inclusion”.
The former staff member met with Long, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Provost, to discuss her concerns. After the meeting she emailed him to say, “Once again, you offered no apology for the handling of the South College incident, only to explain that you were genuinely ‘concerned’ about the events”.
She claimed Long cited potential for protest in the immediate aftermath of the incident to explain why “the University could not be stronger in its support of its marginalised members” in its early communications. She criticised this stance, explaining that “Strong support protects us; statements of ‘concern about behaviours’ merely emboldens those that wish to see us eradicated”.
She also argued that the “wider lessons”, promised by Long in a University-wide email on 8th December, have not been learnt, citing the drafting of proposals for a future speaker approval system put forward by Professor Tom Allen.
The staff member claimed that by putting the proposals before Senate without consulting marginalised people beforehand, the University risks “structurally excluding marginalised people from the policy creation process.”
After raising this concern Dr Shaid Mahmood, Pro-Vice Chancellor (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion), asked Allen to talk to the LGBTQ+ network about the proposals; but the staff member described this solution as a “sticking plaster” as it does not resolve structural issues.
“The University has hidden behind Tim Luckhurst’s privacy whenever asked about its own behaviour,” she said, noting the failure to adequately respond to several open letters, including a statement released by Durham UCU in March.
Durham UCU also stated that the Union branch “has expressed [its] concerns publicly and repeatedly since the incident in December 2021, as have other campus groups”, including calling for a full apology and refunds for tickets to the Christmas formal.
Antony Long replied to the open letter, which Durham UCU sent in March, but the Union branch described this as “inadequate” as it was “limited to the confidentiality of the HR investigation and the review of how external speakers for College-based events are engaged” and “provided no response to the wider range of concerns and demands.”
Durham UCU members recently voted in favour of a “motion that calls upon the University to turn its words into actions and truly take the concerns of Durham University’s trans community seriously” at its AGM.
The staff member further said that she only received “meaningful engagement” on the issue from members of the University leadership team “due to [her] resignation” in a bid to convince her to stay in post, leading her to conclude that “there are strings attached to efforts to improve trans inclusion at Durham.”
A Durham University spokesperson told Palatinate, ““We are working to build an environment at Durham University that is respectful and where people feel comfortable to be themselves and to flourish; where equality, diversity and inclusivity is valued and difference is celebrated.
“It is very important to us that all members of our community feel valued and supported. We welcome the partnership of the LGBT Staff Network, as well as the student LGBT+ Association, in achieving this together.
“We urge that where anyone in our University community has concerns, they raise them quickly to allow appropriate action and/or dialogue.”
The University also repeated a wider comment regarding the South incident.
Image: TSP via Wikimedia Commons