Heat Rises for Durham as Issues Pile Up

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It was 3 December 2021, and South College, Durham University, was having its Christmas formal. “Formals happen every week here,” says Miatta Pemberton (not her real name), who is in her second year at the college. “It’s a longstanding Durham thing. You put on a gown that cost £60, or, if you’re like me, you buy it off eBay for £20.” For a special occasion, it would be normal to have a speaker announce them in advance. By 5 pm, the speaker hadn’t been announced, and Pemberton discovered who it was by chance from the college’s vice-principal, Lee Worden. She couldn’t immediately place the person, but a quick Google search revealed that the speaker was Selina Todd, a St Hilda’s College, Oxford historian.

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Todd is well-known for her work on the British labour movement and her left-wing views. In 2015, she was attacked by right-wing students at an event at Oxford University for her thoughts on transgender rights. In 2019, she was due to speak at an event at Durham University, but the talk was cancelled after students protested. The students said they were concerned about Todd’s “transphobic and reactionary” views.

Pemberton wasn’t sure what to expect from Todd’s talk. “I was interested to see what she had to say,” she says. “I thought it would be controversial.”

Pemberton is one of several students at Durham University who are concerned about the direction the university is going in. In recent years, the university has been at the centre of several controversies, including rent strikes, free-speech walkouts, and accusations of transphobia.

The controversies have divided opinion among students and staff. Some believe that the university is becoming increasingly intolerant of dissenting views. Others think the university is simply trying to create an inclusive environment for all students.

Pemberton falls into the latter camp. “I think Durham is a great place to be a student,” she says. “It’s a very welcoming and inclusive community.”

However, Pemberton also believes that there is a problem with the way that some students engage in debates about controversial issues. “I think there is much misinformation being circulated,” she says. “And I think some people are using Durham as a platform to push their agenda.”

One of the most controversial issues at Durham University is transgender rights. In 2019, the university released a statement supporting the rights of trans students and staff. The idea was widely criticised by some students and staff, who accused the university of being transphobic.

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The controversy came to a head in November 2019 when a group of students staged a walkout during a talk by Stephen Fry, the actor and writer, because he had made comments critical of transgender rights in the past.

The walkout was widely condemned by other students and staff, who accused the protesters of being intolerant of differing views.

Pemberton believes that the way the university has handled the issue of transgender rights has been “pretty good”. “I think they’ve tried to be as inclusive as possible,” she says.

However, Pemberton also believes that some of the language used by the university has been “divisive”. She points to a statement released by the university in December 2019, which said that the university would not tolerate “intolerance towards trans people”.

Pemberton believes this statement is “unfair” to those with legitimate concerns about transgender rights. “I think it’s unfair to paint people who have concerns about transgender rights as being automatically transphobic,” she says.

Pemberton is also concerned about the way that the university has handled the issue of free speech. In November 2019, a group of students staged a walkout during a talk by Stephen Fry, the actor and writer, because he had made comments critical of transgender rights in the past.

The walkout was widely condemned by other students and staff, who accused the protesters of being intolerant of differing views.

Pemberton believes universities should be places where controversial ideas can be freely discussed. “I think it’s important to have difficult conversations,” she says. “And I don’t think universities should be places where people are censored.”

However, Pemberton also believes that there is a need for balance. “I think it’s important to create an environment where all students feel safe and included,” she says. “And I don’t think that should come at the expense of free speech.”

What do you think? Is Durham University becoming a frontline of the UK’s culture wars? Or is it simply trying to create an inclusive environment for all students? Let us know in the comments.

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