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Message from the Acting Vice-Chancellor to the University community, issued 8 December

The events of last Friday at South College have caused considerable distress and anger across much of our community. Many staff and students, alumni as well as other stakeholders are struggling to comprehend how a college formal, an event that is so commonly a source of intense community togetherness and enjoyment, could have caused so much distress and upset. 

I want to thank all of you who have written to me, and other members of the senior leadership team of the University, to tell me how you feel and what you think should happen now. Your letters and emails invariably convey carefully argued and respectful viewpoints.

Although there will inevitably be a range of views and strong feelings across our community, it is important that our approach is one of kindness and respect towards one another. We need to set standards and expectations on how we discuss and debate issues respectfully.

We pride ourselves on being open to different ideas, cultures and thinking, cherishing the ability and space we have to hold conversations and value genuine dialogue. However, please let us be clear that no member of our University community should be subjected to transphobia, homophobia, racism, classism and sexism. We are committed to providing a safe place to live, work and study for all.  

Earlier this week, I asked Professor Jane Macnaughton to undertake an investigation into the arrangements of the event that led to Rod Liddle speaking at the South College formal dinner on December 3rd. This will also look into some behaviours displayed at the event. The investigation will follow established University procedures. As the Durham University Students Union has noted, this process will not be in public and the outcome will not be immediate. 

We are already late in what has been a long and challenging year, so I have asked Professor Macnaughton to complete the report by mid January. Once received, the Vice-Chancellor will determine what next steps should be taken, again in line with our policies. This timescale may be longer than some would want. The investigation has to be thorough and follow our agreed policies. I ask that all colleagues respect the investigation and refrain from predetermining its outcome. We should let the investigation now get on with its work and I would ask that no one contact Professor Macnaughton about the investigation or the issues she is considering. Everybody deserves a fair hearing and respect.

Earlier this term, I reflected in my Matriculation speech to our 8,000 new students on some of the challenges we face as a community. Then, as now, I do not duck the fact that Durham has at times a reputation for being elitist, for not always being as welcoming or as inclusive as we would like to be. I know many of us want to leave that reputation behind. To do that we must work to create a tolerant, inclusive University that treats others with respect not arrogance, and that listens so as to understand others.

We must reaffirm the value we put on all our students, their voice and contribution. We also continue to highlight the support that we offer students at every level of the University. It is also critical that we make real our commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion and make respect everybody’s responsibility. The breadth and range of responses I have seen from so many of our networks I very much welcome and value.

To conclude, it is at times such as this that the mettle of our university is tested.  Indeed, we are wrestling with issues that speak directly to what it means to be a university and to be a member of Durham. Amidst the emotions that surround the events at South College, I take huge pride in the way in which our community is broadly responding, by the seriousness and the determination that so many of you bring to the debate. I hope that through this experience, we become a stronger University.

Published: 8 December 2021


Statement from the Acting Vice-Chancellor, issued in response to Free Speech Union tweet, 14 December

Contrary to claims by the Free Speech Union, it is incorrect that we are under investigation by the Office for Students regarding a speaker policy.

Published: 14 December 2021


Statement from the Acting Vice-Chancellor, issued in response to Palatinate for its article, published on December 13

Durham University upholds freedom of expression within the law.

There is a strong and clear University policy statement and code of practice on freedom of expression and we practise this across all areas of University life.

Being able to express very different views in a way which shows tolerance and respect for others goes to the heart of what we value as a University. We encourage and welcome debate.

If our community is to demonstrate an ability to speak and be heard, we also need to ensure that there is good listening and reflection.

As with many universities, we are experiencing significant societal change and the opportunities and challenges that brings. We are a more diverse institution than we have ever been across our staff and student body.

There is strength in that diversity and the range of personal experiences, beliefs and perspectives. Everybody's voice matters.

I would like to thank everybody who has contacted me to express respectfully a wide range of views and opinions in relation to events at South College.

For now, I encourage everybody to let what is an ongoing investigation be conducted fairly and impartially until it concludes in the New Year.

Published: 14 December 2021


Statement from the Acting Vice-Chancellor, issued in response to The Times for its article, published on 11 December

At Durham University we are working to build an environment that is respectful and where people feel comfortable to be themselves and flourish.

We are strongly committed to improving the experiences of all members of our community, regardless of background, gender, race, disability or sexual orientation.

We are sorry to hear about the experiences of some. We have a strong will to achieve cultural change and, although we know we still have more to do, we are proud of the progress we have made, including through our Respect agenda.

We are clear about the University’s values and the behaviour required within our community. Where an individual’s behaviour falls below the standard we expect, we take swift and decisive action, as we have done on a number of occasions.

We encourage reporting of incidents of unwanted behaviour and when issues are raised they are dealt with appropriately, in accordance with our policies. We welcome the increase in disclosures and reporting seen in recent years as evidence of growing confidence in our investigative and support procedures.

Published: 11 December 2021


Durham University statement on South College dinner, published on 5 December

Durham University upholds Freedom of Speech within the Law. As such we welcome diversity of opinions from our students, staff and visitors.

Protection of the right to free speech extends to discussion of issues that are controversial, including the expression of views which may shock, disturb, or offend others.

We have been alerted to issues arising from a dinner at South College last Friday evening (Friday 3rd December 2021).

The University categorically does not agree with the comments reported from a speech given by an external speaker at this occasion, and is concerned at reports that the behaviours exhibited at the occasion fall short of those that we expect.

The exchange of ideas within the University should at all times be conducted in a tolerant manner. Everybody has the right to live, work and study in a respectful environment.

We are looking into this as a matter of urgency, and an investigation into the circumstances is now underway.

Published: 5 December 2021