Statement from Durham UCU in response to the events at the South College Christmas formal held on 3 December 2021 and their aftermath:

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We stand in solidarity with all those reportedly targeted in Rod Liddle’s speech – including transgender individuals, those who have engaged in sex work, members of racialised groups, and working-class students.

We also stand in solidarity with those who exercised their freedoms by walking out of the venue, challenging the speech, and/or lodging protests in the aftermath. 

We condemn in the strongest possible terms the verbal abuse of students. 

We congratulate Palatinate for their reporting on the incident. 

We also note the letter from students to Jeremy Cook, which can be signed here

Prof. Tim Luckhurst has stated, ‘My intention is never to offend.’ However, some skepticism of this claim is warranted, given: the invited speaker’s history of provocation; Prof. Luckhurst’s long-standing relationship with the invited speaker; that Prof. Luckhurst goes on to state that he intended to ‘stimulate robust discussion and debate’; the fact that students were reportedly not informed of the choice of guest speaker prior to the event; Prof. Luckhurst’s statement that ‘speech does not cause pain’; and most significantly, the fact that Prof. Luckhurst called students who exercised their freedom to leave the venue ‘pathetic.’

The reported statements of the guest speaker were transphobic, racist, and sexist – discriminating against those with protected characteristics, and potentially inciting hatred. Such statements should not be tolerated at Durham University, and certainly never encouraged or defended. Subjecting students who signed up for a celebratory social event (and staff working at the event) to a deliberately provocative and hateful speech, and then insulting students for their choice not to listen, is far from a ‘debate’ – and it certainly does not advance the cause of ‘free speech.’

Prof. Luckhurst has expressed ‘regret’ over ‘any offence that has arisen’ but this does not address the predictably discriminatory and hateful contents of the speech given by Prof. Luckhurst’s invited speaker, and the hostile environment created by Prof. Luckhurst. Prof. Luckhurst has also now ‘apologise(d) unreservedly’ for calling students ‘pathetic,’ yet in the same breath offers the excuse that his ‘anger … reflected sincere commitment to free speech.’ As far as we are aware, he has not apologised for telling a student, ‘You should not be at University.’ Prof. Luckhurst has not addressed the behaviour of his wife Dorothy Luckhurst who used profanity in an exchange with students, and who took to social media to label students as ‘bunch of inadequates’ – behaviour which is relevant here in that she was presumably his guest at the event. Prof. Luckhurst’s partial and qualified apologies are therefore far from adequate given his leadership position within the University and his pastoral responsibilities towards South College students.

Colleges are at ‘the heart of life’ at Durham University and, significantly, at the heart of student welfare. If the Principal of South College (who also serves as Associate Pro Vice Chancellor of Engagement) has used a Christmas formal as a platform to ‘stimulate … debate’ by inviting his ‘good friend’ to give a speech that would predictably include discriminatory and hateful content – and then insulted students for their response – he has betrayed University values, shown wilful disregard for principles of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, violated University policies (including the new Staff Concerns Policy), and failed in his responsibility for student welfare. His reported actions run counter to the interests and well-being of students. He therefore appears to have shown himself both incapable of carrying out his role and unsuitable as a University leader. The reputation of the University has been harmed in the process, and perceptions of Durham University as elitist and exclusionary have been reinforced. South College was deliberately founded to foster “twenty first century inclusivity”, and Professor Luckhurst’s reported actions show a total disregard for these values. Furthermore, they also undermine the values and principles outlined by the Respect Commission, “a standard to which all University members will be held to account”.

We welcome the statement that the ‘University categorically does not agree with the comments reported’ and that ‘an investigation into the circumstances is now underway.’ However, the University’s response does not go far enough.

The University must immediately apologise for the incident, clarify whether the university approved this speaker in advance, and refund students for the cost of attending the event. We also call on the University to ensure that the investigation is a full and thorough one which considers all aspects of the case, including any recommendations about approving the event from the University’s Free Speech Group and decision by the University Secretary. In addition to the investigation into how the event took place, there should be an individual investigation into the conduct of Prof. Tim Luckhurst. This should be a formal HR investigation which may lead to disciplinary action – and we urge the University to consider the full range of appropriate disciplinary action. We call on the University to assess whether existing procedures are adequate to ensure the safety and welfare of all those in the University community while upholding freedom of expression, and to consider revising such procedures in order to avoid similar scenarios in the future. Pending the results of the investigation, Prof. Luckhurst should not be interacting with students in a pastoral role.