Durham University accused of ‘cover-up’ over review of guest speakers

University graduation ceremony. Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Durham University will undertake a review into its policies for inviting external speakers, following a row over a speech by Rod Liddle at a dinner last year.

Student protesters said the university is seeking a “systemic cover-up” of the controversy, arguing it has failed to support marginalised students throughout.

In December last year, students walked out of the dinner at South College during the columnist’s speech.

According to a report from student newspaper Palatinate, during his after-dinner speech Mr Liddle said that when it comes to gender, the left is against “science or pure facts”, adding: “A person with an X and a Y chromosome, that has a long, dangling penis, is scientifically a man, and that is pretty much, scientifically, the end of the story.”

At the time, South College principal Professor Tim Luckhurst was criticised for calling students “pathetic” for walking out, even though most were unaware that Mr Liddle would be speaking when they chose to attend.

Prof Luckhurst stepped back from his duties, but has since resumed them at the start of the academic term.

In January, the university refused to comment on the result of its investigation into the row, and would only say that it would be “inappropriate to comment on what remains a confidential and ongoing process”.

But on Thursday, Durham released a statement saying it will now review its processes for engaging with external speakers, adding that it does not intend “to exclude any speakers from our campus”.

Durham confirmed that it would not be publishing details of Prof Luckhurst’s involvement in the incident, but said that as a university it “must constantly strive to establish a culture which is underpinned by respect and by our values” and that this included “taking pride” in how ideas were discussed and debated, “including those that we may find challenging”.

“We should ensure that as an educational institution we allow our students opportunities to openly debate so that ideas and views can be heard and contested respectfully,” the statement added.

Tom Allen, master of Grey College, will now undertake a review of how “we engage external speakers for college-based events” but this will not lead to excluding speakers from the university.

“Rather, the focus will be on providing clarity as to how students and the wider college community are engaged, including the appropriateness of the forum for any speaker and ensuring appropriate information is provided in advance to attendees,” the university said.

Students said the university response smacks of a “systemic cover-up”.

South College student Niall Hignett, an organiser of protests on the issue during post-offer open days, told the PA news agency that the university had said it would deal with the matter “swiftly”.

“And what we’ve actually seen is delay, delay, delay,” he said.

“To be honest, I’m really disappointed with the statement. It’s frankly embarrassing.”

Mr Hignett said the issue was not about free speech, “it’s about student welfare and wellbeing – because the event wasn’t an academic setting; there was no room there for academic debate”.

He added that in the university’s statement, multiple references were made to freedom of speech.

Mr Hignett said: “Our main contention now is that Tim Luckhurst was shouting at students – he showed himself to be incredibly unprofessional.”

He said the review of the existing investigation was “a complete abdication of responsibility” and a “systemic cover-up”.

In their statement, the university management had shown themselves to be “puppets of culture war proponents” while failing to support marginalised students, he added.

Students have planned protests on post-offer visit days on March 22 and 23.

Student ambassadors on the days have been advised to be “professional in your outlook when asked about the protests and any other issues”, adding: “Your personal opinion may have to be separated from your position as an employee.”

Sara L Uckelman, associate professor of philosophy at Durham, and equalities co-officer for Durham University and College Union, said the union “will certainly be continuing to press the Durham University management for a clear and unambiguous statement that the behaviour that was seen at the South College formal last December is unacceptable and will not be tolerated”.

“There is no way that the university can credibly claim that they are serious about providing an open and undiscriminating environment that is supportive of everyone – no matter class, gender, race, sex, or gender – if they do not unequivocally condemn this behaviour.

“It goes against everything that DUCU supports, including equality and the right to all students and employees to study and work free from harassment and abuse.”

She added that it was “not enough” for management to say they would make recommendations to the senate on how guest speakers were engaged for events.

“They must also say why no such policy existed before now, or – if one does – why it was not followed. It is also not enough for the management to say that they cannot comment on any individual consequences that may happen as a part of a disciplinary matter (which we of course recognise and accept); they must also say what positive steps they are going to do to provide redress to the students affected by the South College events.

“An apology from the university management, who provided the environment which allowed this event to occur, wouldn’t go amiss.”

The University stated on December 5 that it was “concerned at reports that the behaviours exhibited at the occasion fall short of those that we expect”.