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Response to Recent South College Events

This departmental statement was sent to the Vice Chancellor in June 2022:

Staff in our department have followed with great concern the incident at the South College Christmas formal last December, and the subsequent University response. Colleges form the central pillar of pastoral care for our students, and for many students, they are the place they call home. Therefore, when it comes to South College, we are worried that Prof. Luckhurst, who risked his students being exposed to offensive speech at a Christmas formal, has now returned to his duties as the college principal. Students have a right to feel safe, respected, and supported in their homes. We believe this right has been denied following the South College principal’s return to formals, with no publicly-reported actions taken regarding the comments made by Mr Liddle or the tactics used by Prof Luckhurst in securing Mr Liddle’s ability to expose students to those comments. We note further there has been no public recognition from the principal that his inappropriate actions extend beyond his responses to his own students exercising their right to protest. 

As a result of this, the Department is concerned that the environment of South College may no longer be one which is seen to value the support processes we rely upon, regarding those Mathematical Sciences students who call the college home. The invitation to state opinions designed to deliberate undermine and invalidate students on the basis of a protected characteristic, and the failure of the university to publicly challenge those opinions, contribute directly to many students’ concerns that the university no longer represents a community in which they can feel safe.

We respect the procedures in place to deal with a situation such as this one, and we have waited for the conclusion of the investigation. However, the investigation has concluded without releasing any findings. While we understand the investigation itself must remain confidential, we are concerned that the current situation gives students no reason to believe that the University considers deliberately offensive speech to be unacceptable. This makes further comments along these lines more likely, a situation which could rise to the level of harassment for some students (we note anti-trans incidents have been reported following the university’s lack of public response). While we welcome the announcement that Professor Allen will be examining and making recommendations regarding the engagement of external speakers, this in itself is far from a sufficient response. Our students deserve to feel supported and safe, and that requires, at minimum, a statement from the University that the language used by Mr Liddle was both inappropriate, and inconsistent with University values. Otherwise, it becomes difficult not to conclude that the University’s only concern with regard to the public expression of such views is with the source of those views, rather than their content.

(The lack of information about the review timeline, now addressed in a notice published at the end of the first week of term, has exacerbated the situation, as such information should have been made available prior to the return of the South College Principal to functions. We welcome the review and hope proper recommendations will result from the process.) 

As a University we must learn and improve from what has happened. Our students deserve to feel supported, and our colleagues and students need to be assured incidents like these will not happen again. Prospective students must know Durham University is committed to creating a welcoming and truly inclusive environment for all. The resolution of this process has had precisely the opposite effect.  

As such we request that the University release a statement explaining what actions will now be taken beyond Professor Allen’s review and how the University intends to avoid similar situations in the future (a plan which must include more than narrowly focusing on the vetting of external speakers). We also request a statement regarding whether Mr. Liddle’s comments were found to violate South College and/or University rules or policies, and if they were not, whether the relevant rules or policies will be reviewed as a result.  Finally, we request a clarifying statement from Professor Luckhurst as to whether he now recognises he failed in his duties as South College Principal both in inviting Mr Liddle as an after-dinner speaker, and in failing to disclose this invitation until after students had paid to attend the Christmas formal. All three of these statements should be available to all staff and students before the end of the current term. 

We also note that the students of South College have responded to this situation themselves. We ask the University to meaningfully engage with student groups and address their concerns directly and respectfully.  

The Department of Mathematical Sciences is committed to creating a fair and inclusive environment for all, and we do not tolerate attitudes or actions which violate the dignity of staff or students based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, or any other protected characteristic.