The Inconvenient Truth Behind the Sheraton Park Move – Danger or Opportunity?

By Pen-Yuan Hsing
PhD Student in the Department of Biosciences

As I write this post, I recall being riveted by the seminal climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth back in 2006. In the film (referring to the crises around anthropogenic climate change), former US Vice President Al Gore noted that the Chinese word for crises (危機) is composed of two characters: One for danger (危) and the other can be interpreted as opportunity (機). It has been over a decade, and despite substantial challenges that still linger, citizens around the globe are slowly starting to take advantage of the opportunity that this danger provides and move the world towards a more sustainable (and prosperous) future.

I am reminded of it because Durham University is also facing a crisis, but are we turning it into an opportunity? When I first arrived here three years ago, I learned that the University’s “Academic Strategy” was to deliver “world-leading and world-changing research… [with a] student experience as good as any in the world”. The University homepage proudly proclaims that it is a “World Top 100 University“. I felt very lucky, and indeed, honoured to be among such accomplished folk. But since 2016, Ustinovians have become acutely aware of the apparently mismanaged process behind the forced relocation of Ustinov College from its current site at Howlands Farm to Sheraton Park. During the initial so called “consultations” on the move, we were repeatedly told that the “proposal” has not been “decided on”. Events since then suggested to me that this University views its students as a liability, one it has to reluctantly deal with because they are the source of the University’s ever-expanding profit margin. But, surely, I am wrong? Well let’s see. Here are a few of my recollections from the ordeal:

During the “consultations”, the “proposed” move was undeniably a done deal. Clandestine preparations and negotiations for it started long before it was announced in late July 2016, and the so called “consultation” occurred when the majority of postgraduate students are busy finishing their dissertations or leaving the University altogether — leaving just over a month before a “decision” has to be made in late September 2016. In light of the Queen’s Campus move — which itself was announced just a week before final exams — the University seems to be establishing a pattern of behaviour where the timing of the two so called “consultations” are not only done in bad faith, but also strategic. The first consultation was, in fact, organised by the Ustinov College Graduate Common Room (GCR), leaving only one that was actually organised by the University (which the University didn’t actively advertise). As indicated above, this occurred when postgraduate students were busy with dissertations or moving out. Even during the second “town hall” meeting, the majority of the of the one and a half hours was filibustered with lecturing without authentic engagement. How does the University justify the strategic timing of so called “consultations” when stakeholders are least able to participate? If this was a mistake, how does the University executive justify the legitimacy of these “consultations”? Where is the public apology? How could these so called “consultations” be sufficient for the University Council to make an honest, informed, and ethical decision?

The University claimed that it “preferred” to move Ustinov College (I emphasise that this preference was made without even knowing students’ opinions) and wanted to seek views on “how this move would be best managed” while simultaneously claiming “no final decision has been taken”. In addition, the University alleged that the move will be “permanent” and that the plans “do not include moving Ustinov again” while saying it is just a “25-year nomination” (clearly not permanent!) in the same statement. These obvious internal contradictions demonstrate cognitive dissonance of Orwellian proportions — likely plagiarised straight from a Kafka novel. What exactly hadn’t been decided by late summer 2016? Was not moving Ustinov College ever a genuine option? Is Doublethink what the University wants to promote in this post-truth world?

Doublethink: “The act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct, often in distinct social contexts”

The so called Sheraton Park “proposal” and FAQ vaguely listed several facility embellishments to purpose built student accommodation (PBSA) already under construction. This was without specific and concrete pledges on exactly what the final new “college” site will look like. However, the University decided to implement the so called “proposal” with that glaring vagueness — essentially coercing the student body to rubberstamping the plan while giving the University free reign on developing Sheraton Park however it wants. If future students raise concerns about the Sheraton Park site, the University can simply say that students have already provided consent. This reason alone is more than sufficient to disqualify the proceedings as real and useful consultations.

The University was allegedly “engaged in commercially confidential negotiations” and therefore was unable or unwilling to “consult” the wider Durham community (including, but not limited to, affected students) before July 2016. This implicitly acknowledges that plans for the Ustinov move were set in motion long ago. On what date (year, month, and day) did the allegedly “confidential” negotiations for the Ustinov move began? On what date (year, month, and day) was the idea for Ustinov’s relocation first conceived and by whom? Why does the University conceal this information?
The University insisted that the “negotiations” for Sheraton Park had to be “confidential”. Can they clearly explain exactly what that meant? Was there a legally binding non-disclosure agreement that all parties (which were whom?) had to sign? Or was there another legal instrument preventing the University from revealing the so called “proposal” until July 2016, just a couple months before the official “decision” had to be made? If there was no legal document preventing the University from revealing the so called Sheraton Park “proposal”, what other specific reasons (other than “commercially confidential” boilerplate) compelled them to keep the plans top secret? And if the University was somehow legally obliged to conceal its plans to relocate Ustinov College until late July 2016, why didn’t it at least involve some student, staff, and local community representatives in the so called “confidential” negotiations? Those representatives would be bound by the hypothetical non-disclosure agreement, but at least they can provide perspectives from their constituencies.

Before the move of Ustinov College was announced last summer, the College held extensive and energetic consultations on the construction of a new study space adjacent to Fisher House. The University knowingly withheld its plans for the Sheraton Park move while this study space was being planned. And in conversation with College staff, many of us learned that they often first heard about the University’s plans through us! This is further evidence of mismanagement at the very least.

And why must the move begin in the 2017/2018 academic year? And why does it need to happen so fast? I acknowledge, and might even agree with, the University’s claim that a staggered move of students from Queen’s Campus will diminish their student and collegiate experiences. However, this is just a reason for why the move must be fast and for entire colleges at a time, but it doesn’t address the “when”. Why not simply wait until new (and as they allege, high quality) college sites (such as at Mount Oswald) are completed then move Queen’s Campus students directly there? This will minimise disruption to Durham campus students such as those at Ustinov College. The University states that Ustinov’s move will be staggered over 2017 and 2018. Even with the vague statements in the FAQ (e.g. “schedule the relocation to cause the minimum disruption”), how will Ustinov’s staggered move be less disruptive to the student experience than those from Queen’s Campus if their move is staggered? This is further evidence of the University’s discrimination against its world-class-research-producing postgraduate students.

After voicing the above concerns in an email to the Executive Committee, I received an email response from Professor Antony Long (Chair of the Academic Estate Strategy Programme Board). I believe in giving credit where it’s due, and I appreciate Professor Long’s reply when he must have received many responses to the “consultation”. Unfortunately, the responses were generally vague and do not directly address the majority of the points I made.

Despite the highly illegitimate “consultation” process, the University Council refused to delay their decision. When the University Council meeting happened in late September 2016, student, staff, and local community representation were minimal, and the process was opaque.

After the decision to move Ustinov College, there were more so called “town hall” meetings on the subject. Sadly, university representatives often filibustered the meetings with long lectures. And when questions were asked, their responses were mostly condescending or patronising. Examples include telling everyone that “you must keep an open mind” or more insultingly, “you should and will learn to adapt!” What’s more, on more than one occasion attendees were not allowed to take pictures or even notes.

The mismanagement also continued. Quoting our distinguished former GCR president Kirstyn:
“…After making it clear at University Council meeting in September that the ‘consultation’ provided was not sufficient, all colleges of interest (Snow, Stephenson, Ustinov and Butler) were promised a ‘working group’ in which more ‘consultation’ would take place… Unfortunately, this working group was not officially set up until late November, two months after the decision was made. In addition, the lease for Sheraton Park had gone unsigned by the university until April of this year, when it had been estimated to be signed by December of 2016. The planning permission for the extension of the building (for social space) was not approved for months after its submission. This may be due to the fact that the university failed to consult with the Sheraton Park Residents Association or the college before submitting the application. It seems peculiar to me that the move to Sheraton Park was sold to us as part of the ‘wider university strategy.’ Frankly speaking, there doesn’t seem to be anything remotely strategic about its implementation…”

When asked about all the above problems (and more) during recent “town halls”, University representatives insisted that we shouldn’t relitigate what’s already been decided. Problem is, these glaring problems were never litigated to begin with. And without that how does one learn from mistakes?

Here is the inconvenient truth:

In a widely distributed email sent on 03 August 2016, Vice-Chancellor Professor Stuart Corbridge boasted about the University’s outstanding research, conveniently ignoring the fact that most of this research was built on postgraduate students’ often backbreaking (and way-below-minimum-wage) labour. In the Durham University Vision Statement revised on 28/29th September 2015, section 4.1 states that it will “Maintain first rate student experience with a strong UG and academic focus,” again conspicuously neglecting the postgraduate contribution to the University’s world class research and collegiate experience. Through these prevarications, and with the points I’ve raised now, Durham University has clearly demonstrated its disdain for its postgraduate community. It is also disturbing (and revealing) that the University — despite its stated goals of fostering a superior collegiate experience — has chosen the move of Ustinov College as the “preferred” option without even knowing what the undergraduates and postgraduates might think. I am dismayed by this duplicitous behaviour, which is antithetical to the University’s stated strategic goal of being a good “global citizen”. Is this the message we want to send to the world? After being here for three years, it is with tremendous regret and reluctance to say that my faith in this “world class” institution has sadly been misplaced.

Here is the crises and danger:

Whether it’s dealing with the rigid requirements of the Research and Teaching Excellence Frameworks (REF and TEF) or Brexit in a globalised world, it is true that Durham University is facing enormous challenges. That said, the scandalous forced relocation of Ustinov College is a microcosm of the University’s lack of leadership and responsibility during these turbulent times. Let’s not even talk about campus sexual violence, rising tuition and accommodation fees, that the value of university staff pay had declined in real terms by 14.5% since 2009 while, on average, the pay of university vice-chancellors have risen by as much as 5.1%. In the midst of these crises, this University still wants to increase its student population in an overcrowded town by thousands. They claim that this will get the student population to “critical mass”. Universities far ahead of us in world rankings achieve much more with student populations far smaller than ours (just look at this other university in Durham). What’s Durham University’s “critical mass” for? More tuition income?

But here is the opportunity:

During my time in Durham, I had the incredible privilege of working with the most talented, driven, and passionate students and staff. Whether that’s working on science outreach for the University or being a team lead in the Ustinov Global Citizenship Programme, I have learned that Durham has not yet lost its most valuable asset: Its people. Rather than seeing this asset as a liability, the University still has the opportunity to make the most of it. The great science educator Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson once said that making mistakes is the best way to learn. This University has made many mistakes and now has the chance to learn from them. A good first step is to openly admit to those mistakes instead of covering them up. Publicly apologising for a mistake is one of the most courageous things one can do, and the challenges of today require nothing less than this level of courage. Will the University meet this call?

The documentary An Inconvenient Truth is known for some eminently quotable lines, one of which is: “If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together.” Will Durham University re-join its wider community and continue to walk far, together?

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