Durham University has vowed to crack down on racism and sexual assault following the recent expulsion of three students.
The University announced last week that one student had been expelled for sexual violence and misconduct, while another has received a fixed-term suspension for breaching the University’s non-academic misconduct policy. This follows the expulsion in October 2020 of two students for sexual misconduct and racist social media comments respectively.
Two former police officers have been hired as permanent investigators of misconduct, one of whom has particular experience in handling sexual violence cases. This will make Durham the first UK university to have two and one of only three – alongside Bath and Bristol – which has any at all.
In an exclusive interview with Palatinate, Jeremy Cook OBE, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Colleges and Student Experience, said that tackling sexual violence was a key priority for the University’s Executive Committee (UEC).
“One area that we looked at as well in the University is looking at trying to speed up the process, because justice delayed is justice denied to some extent. The University is working really hard to increase the agility and the speed of our conduct processes.”
“It’s about being demonstrable,” Cook went on to say. “The students tell me, ‘That’s great Jeremy, but we want to see more of that, we want to see you doing things and taking action and showing us that you mean what you say’. And for me that’s really, really important.
“I’ve also added in my time – where students who are found to have conducted misconduct in what’s called Level Two cases, which is the Senate Misconduct and Senate Disciplinary Committee level – their cases are published on the University web pages.
“That is now a case of saying to our community, ‘Look, we don’t just say this, we do this – this is important to us. We value this.’”
For legal reasons, the University is unable to publish the names of students who are found to have committed sexual violence, and the impact of similar constraints on the University’s ability to act was a common theme of the interview.
Cook recognised that not publishing many details of a case can leave a community in the dark, and pledged to work hard on revealing as much as the University legally could: “I want to push a little bit harder on saying a bit more, because if I’m going to restore the faith in our BAME community that we’ve got to be strong on racism, I want to say […] this person has been suspended or expelled for racism. I want to be a bit bolder in my risk envelope.
“I’d rather get the compliments of the community and be on the side of the right than always trying to defend, but it’s a very hard balance, because of course legally if there’s any sense we’ve given away soft indication of who they are, we could have to face challenge and legal compensation. I push the lawyers as hard as I can, is my honest line.”
On sexual assault, Cook explained the disciplinary approach: “The University doesn’t have a zero-tolerance policy. Zero-tolerance is an idealistic position. It’s in theory great, but of course in practice, there may be factors, mental health issues that an individual has, that may have contributed.”
That said, Cook emphasised that crossing the line with University values has clear consequences: “It’d be rare that anybody who had conducted a tangible, clear, deliberate sexual assault would remain in this University, in my opinion.”
Speaking on the second case announced last week, Cook acknowledged that a fixed-term exclusion during a pandemic may appear an insufficient punishment, but again he stressed the importance of due process.
“In this case, there is a fair system in place for what they’ve done to be sanctioned and it’s based on the timeframe of when it happened,” he explained. “We have to have fair systems that are fair to both sides, and that is the process.
“If it appears unfortunate to some people that they have almost got away from the year with Covid-19, I can’t help that.”
Similarly challenging is the University’s inability to discipline individuals once they have graduated, let alone take punitive action against them. Palatinate understands that numerous individuals have been reported to the University in recent years, only for no action to be taken against them because they have graduated.
Cook is pushing for that system to change: “This a pan-sector issue. When a student leaves the University, the administrative process stops. So if you’re a third-year leaving this University, effectively there is a cliff edge in our ability to take sanction against you.”
He explained that if a third-year committed an offence in June that the police could not take to court due to a lack of evidence – something Cook says is “very common, sadly” – then the University could start an investigation, with its lower bar for action.
But, “if you leave the University on the 31st July, the clock stops, and that’s crazy… Justice wouldn’t happen, so I’m looking to get that policy changed to a maybe two or three-year period of time where if something comes to light, we can after, even in absentia if you’ve
left, take action against you.”
The punishment may be small, but Cook insists it would be meaningful. “You won’t be able to apply the sanction against them, but you could do the process and then potentially disbar them as alumni for example and take action.
“Even if it’s just telling the victim that you took the right action and sending the right message, that you can’t just escape in a statute of limitations.”
In the summer of 2020, the University’s Respect Commission delivered a 53-page report which called for it to “do better” in challenging “rude, unacceptable and disrespectful behaviour”. The University has now started to implement some of its findings, and Cook said that the majority of them would be implemented by the summer.
Durham’s People of Colour Association (DPOCA) criticised the two years it took the Commission to produce its report as well as a delay in publication due to Covid-19. The SU, meanwhile, established its own Culture Commission in November 2020 with a mandate to focus more on students’ experiences.
Cook disagrees with this criticism of the Respect Commission’s work. “I don’t feel that it doesn’t sufficiently represent students, but, of course, we respect anybody’s opinion and their right to go further.
“We felt it was a wide-ranging review of the entire University community and it was done by an independent organisation with the freedom to go across the staff and student community.
“The Respect Commission mustn’t really be seen as one thing,” he continued. “It was a really good chance to peel back the lid and look at what’s underneath. I don’t think many other universities have done that and I think we’ve been very brave.
“As a relatively new member of UEC [the University’s Executive Committee], I can honestly say that I feel my colleagues and I are pushing the respect agenda really hard. It’s been supported financially and action has been taken.”
Cook spoke enthusiastically about the changes he believes the University has made since he joined from the British Army in September 2019. “I’m quite excited. Just in my time here we’ve seen a lot of real change and real commitment to change. When I first arrived here, people were saying to me, ‘Jeremy, where’s the proof, where’s the staff, where’s the recruitment, where’s the decisive action. Are you kicking people out?’ So we’re starting to respond to that and I think we’re doing really well, in my view.
“We’re doing a lot of work in the discipline area since I arrived, and I’d done a lot of training in my previous career, to say ‘why is it loose here’, ‘why is it fluffy there’: let’s be clear.
“You’ve got to do this,” he went on to say. “You don’t make this change unless people believe you are committed to it. I’m 100% committed to driving this change so let’s get behind this together. This isn’t just a University problem, it’s about changing all of us.
“The vast, vast majority of our students are brilliant. A vast, vast amount of our staff are brilliant. It’s a small amount of people who behave poorly, whether it’s privileged or racist, and it creates a sense that our University is not a respectful place.
“We’ve got to get those pockets and send a message that people who do act in this way have no place here.”
Looking ahead, the Pro-ViceChancellor sees clear plans for progress that students could even see during their time at university: “My vision would be every single student at the University, and member of staff, has done the bystander training.
“It’s that really that evidence tells us is going to make a change. It’s a disruptor. It creates an ability for people to really call out inappropriate comments and behaviour and stopping it at source rather than just education.
“Studies tell us that people who perpetrate sexual violence know they’re breaking consent – they don’t not know what consent is. It’s very rare that sexual violence occurs where there is a lack of understanding of consent. I mean morally, even without consent training, most people at university age would be struggling to comprehend that as even vaguely appropriate.”
Image: Maddie Flisher