The fourth and final of a series of discussions held by the University of Edinburgh’s Rector Debora Kayembe took place on Thursday 14 October in New College.
Under the watchful eye of alumni paintings adorning the walls of Rainy Hall, discussions have taken place throughout the past four weeks regarding freedom of expression, diversity, decolonisation and overall respect within the institution.
The ‘Respect with Our Rector’ meeting concluded with a discussion surrounding freedom of expression and transparency at governance levels, with a noteworthy guest in the form of Vice Principal Colm Harmon.
The meeting commenced with an introduction from Umar Malik, convenor of the Islamophobia Working Group at Edinburgh Race Equality Network (EREN).
This led onto an open floor with a focus on culture and diversity, where the Rector and multiple EUSA Liberation Officers shared items from their culture, or anything that felt important to their identity.
To follow-up, a town hall took place with a rare personal insight into Vice Principal Colm Harmon’s upbringing and his own university experience.
He spoke of feeling like an “imposter” at university, being one of very few from his school that attended.
This was translated into the university’s own student experience as he recognised the university’s prestigious reputation often leaves some students to feel excluded from the discussion and culture at the university.
Harmon wanted to emphasise a rethink of the university’s “offering” saying the university should be a “launchpad” for one’s life.
He talked of the university’s “statement” of inclusion, but also the actions that need to be taken to show this:
“It is important that the university has a statement that reflects what it is, but that doesn’t matter until it is shown in what we teach.”
The floor was then opened to questions and debate in which Harmon’s own interactions with the student community were brought up.
He noted that in the covid period there was a “change of style” in the way students were spoken to as language often dealt with the implementation of rules and rebuked students for breaking the pandemic regulations.
He admitted that this was a mistake and wanted to emphasise leadership’s efforts to talk “with rather than at students”.
EUSA Trans and Nonbinary Liberation Officer, Jaime Prada, spoke from the floor concerning freedom of expression saying, “me defending my rights is not an opinion”.
This has been a key issue for academic staff and students alike regarding where the boundaries of question and debate in academia should lie when it threatens certain individuals and identities.
In response, Harmon spoke from “our side of the table” noting that there is a “learning curve” that is needed, as these are “new issues”.
He once again spoke of the university’s “statement” and its translation into “meaningful action.”
This provoked disagreement from the crowd as Professor Sarah Cunningham-Burley argued that “we have to allow debate and disagreement … otherwise we’re in danger of constantly having to state why these freedoms (of expression) are important.”
The next section of the meeting entitled ‘Hear My Voice’ allowed all participants – students, staff and others – to share a story or reflection.
This began with Umar Malik sharing his own experience with racism in Edinburgh and noted being called “tartan Taliban” by his own teachers in school.
EUSA Women’s Liberation Officer, Mukai Chigumba said, “I know what it’s like to be a student who feels displaced” although she also noted that changes are being made with efforts to “open up that space” and discussion.
The meeting concluded with a final speech from the Rector in which she focused on action and policies that reflect the multiple identities and cultures within the institution saying, “we need to be represented by policies that reflect who we are.”
She also noted the running theme of all four meetings – respect:
“If you don’t realise the importance of respect in our society then it will collapse.”
With regards to her future aims and intentions, she said, “I will work for peace to be here and respect to be the key of this university.”
And with a final statement on liberation, she drew the meeting to a close:
“It is our freedom that makes us who we are.”
Image: Wikimedia Commons