I am an associate professor in the department of Philosophy at Durham University. I serve as the Deputy Director of the Liberal Arts programme, and I am an elected officer of the Durham branch of the University and College Union, serving in the role of equalities officer (jointly with another DUCU member) since summer 2021, and prior to that I was an elected member of the DUCU committee. In 2020, I was elected by the Academic Electoral Assembly as a member of the standing committee, representing the concerns of members of academic staff on Senate.
Durham University, like pretty much the entire Higher Education sector in England, is currently dealing with a number of complicated difficulties, including the Covid-19 pandemic, unexpected over-recruitment as a result of the pandemic, and the issues which have resulted in industrial action every year since 2018.
I note this as providing a backdrop to the events of today, March 16, 2022, which I will try to relate in as factual manner as possible (because I happen to think that the facts matter).
Statute no. 32 of the University Statutes says:
(1) The Vice-Chancellor may call meetings of all members of the academic staff. The Vice-Chancellor shall call and attend such a meeting if requested in writing by at least one hundred members of the academic staff.
(2) Any matter of interest to the University may be discussed at all meetings of the academic staff held under this Statute, and their representations shall be forwarded to such one or more of the Statutory Bodies as the meeting considers appropriate.
On March 1, 2022, more than 150 signatures requesting such a meeting was submitted to the Vice Chancellor’s office. The letters that many people signed requesting the meeting included these two requests:
I request that the meeting is held in hybrid format allowing for both in-person and online attendance, and that a venue be identified that allows attendance by as many members of academic staff who would wish to attend in person. I hope that you would also attend in-person, as per the conditions that staff have been teaching in across this academic year.
I also request that the meeting be organised to allow the views of academic staff to be aired openly and to allow discussion between yourself and staff.
On March 9, 2022, teaching and research staff at Durham received an email from the Vice-Chancellor’s office, which said in part:
All staff are warmly invited to attend a staff Forum on Wednesday 16th March at 2.00pm. I will host the Forum, which will include a short presentation from members of the senior team and me.
In order to facilitate attendance on an equal basis, the Forum will take place online.
With the email was a link to a form where members of staff could submit questions in advance. This form was only accessible to members of staff logged into their Microsoft Suite account, and had “name” as a required field.
When I replied inquiring what provision there was for asking questions anonymously, I received this answer:
You can still use the Microsoft form as all questions are put forward to the panel anonymously prior to the event.
Four things to note:
- We requested a meeting with the Vice-Chancellor, not the Vice-Chancellor and members of the senior leadership team.
- We requested a hybrid meeting, in keeping with the working conditions that most members of academic staff have been expected to work in for the last year. This request was not met.
- The fact that questions were submitted to the panel anonymously does not address concerns about lack of provision for anonymous submission.
- March 16 is the last Wednesday of the term. Wednesday afternoon is traditionally teaching-free so that committee and other meetings can be held then, and most departments traditionally hold their Boards of Studies on the first and last Wednesdays of the term, at 2pm.
The following is an incomplete list of departments whose Boards of Studies or other departmental meetings conflicted with the Vice-Chancellor’s Forum: Computer Science, DCAD, English, History, MLAC, Music, Philosophy, Physics, and Sociology. Some, but not all, departments where able to shift their meetings to 3pm in order to allow members of staff to attend the Vice Chancellor’s forum.
Over 450 people attended the meeting. The Vice Chancellor began with a presentation, followed by presentations by the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost, the head of HR, and the Chief Financial Officer, followed up with some final remarks by the Vice Chancellor. These presentations were on the issues of pensions, pay, and workload. During the presentations, the zoom chat was turned off so that no comments or questions could be written. The presentations lasted 38 minutes, at which time the Q&A was opened, and I raised my zoom hand. The first comment in the chat was a request that for an anonymous zoom poll, at the end of the meeting, to determine whether participants were happy with the format and running of the meeting. The request for a poll was never acknowledged, but towards the end of the meeting another attendee set up a poll via an external site; the results can be read here.
The first person called on was the pensions officer of Durham UCU, who attempted to rebutt some of the claims that were made in the pensions presentation, at which point, the Vice-Chancellor responded saying that she didn’t want to get into a back and forth about the facts.
We are a university. Facts, and truth, matter. If this is not the time and place (a VC-hosted discussion, i.e., a back and forth) to try to come to an agreement on the facts, then when is?
As other people were called on to speak, and questions were pulled out of the chat in order for them to be answered, it became increasingly clear that questions and questioners were being cherry-picked. At 14:44, I asked in the chat “in what order are questions being taken?” When someone else was allowed to speak (note: people were not allowed to unmute themselves, only the host could unmute people), two people pointed out that both I, and Sol Gamsu the DUCU president, had been earlier in the hand-queue, and others put in a request that questions be answered in the order they were raised. Sol was then invited to ask the next question.
At 14:50, there was a request in the chat that elected representations of staff be given the space to speak, as opposed to unelected senior management.
At 14:57, the first woman was called upon to speak. She pointed out that my hand had been raised before hers and indicated that it would be proper to call on me first. The response was that at this point there was no longer enough time to take everyone’s question. She proceeded to speak (and did so amazingly, I wish that speech had been recorded so that we could have the transcript of it, I am so impressed and so pleased that she was willing to take a stand on behalf of her department and the wider university community.)
At 15:00, the Vice Chancellor tried to bring the meeting to a close. She said she would stay on a few minutes longer to allow people to continue to put questions in the chat, to be answered at a later date. At this point, people were enormously frustrated at the fact that I had not yet been invited to speak:
anonymized zoom chat transcript
At 15:05 I left the meeting (so as not to be any more late to my departmental Board of Studies meeting), having never been invited to speak.
The ironic thing? What I wanted, first and foremost, was to offer the Vice Chancellor an apology.
On February 17, while I was on the picket line outside Elvet Riverside, I saw the Vice Chancellor across the street, presumably en route from her office (we had seen her walking the morning before presumably en route to her office). Despite the fact that she’s been in post since January, I had not had a chance to meet her in person yet, because Senate meetings are still on zoom. (I’ve never yet been to a Senate meeting in person.) There was a gap in the traffic, so on impulse I dashed across the street, to ask if she’d like to come over and talk to us for a bit. She said she was on her way to an appointment, which, fair enough, so I tried to follow it up with “You’re welcome on the line any time, we would love to have a chance to talk to you,” but before I could finish extending the invitation she cut me off and said “Don’t ambush me,” and walked off.
I was completely taken aback; it was my not my intention at all to ambush her, though had I been less impulsive in my decision to try to talk to her, I might have seen that this could’ve been intimidating. But I honestly — and honestly naively — thought that a Vice Chancellor would be interested in talking to her staff; I would not have approached her otherwise. I have felt very bad about this incident ever since, and I wanted to apologise, personally and verbally, in a way that an apology in a chat or an email, from someone she did not know, would not have worked. I am sorry, and would have acted differently if I had thought more before acting.
I wanted to apologise, and I wanted to ask what we, as a body of staff, needed to do in order to facilitate a meeting, with her (and not members of the senior leadership team), in a hybrid setting (where she could meet, in person, at least some of her staff), where we could discuss matters of importance to the academic community at Durham University (no powerpoint presentations needed — or allowed). Because after an hour of managerial fillibustering and obfuscation, we did not get what we asked for and we do not know how to get it.
Note: I have attempted in this post to stick to the facts and maintaining anonymity of other attendees of the meeting as much as possible. If there’s any concern that I have misrepresented what happened or omitted important information, I will edit this post to rectify the error and add a note here of any changes made, and when.
Correction 2022-03-16, 21:56: It was not the Pro-Vice-Chancellor who attended the meeting and gave a presentation, but the Deputy Vice Chancellor and Provost. Also, added mention of the informal satisfaction survey.
Addition 2022-03-17, 08:53: Added Physics to the list of depts having a meeting during the time of the VC forum. I have also learned that Post-Graduate Open Days were happening that afternoon as well, preventing even more members from staff from being able to attend the forum.
Addition 2022-03-17, 11:14: English also had their BoS during the forum, and were able to send only one representative to the forum.