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Speculative Society announces ‘intention to admit female members’ amid criticism

ByAlex Shaw

May 19, 2015

The Student investigation reveals senior staff objections to the Society’s privileged position within The University of Edinburgh, secret legal advice the university sought over the secretive club, and how senior management granted the Society access to university property with no formal oversight.


One of the world’s oldest debating clubs is to admit women members for the first time in its 250-year history, seven months after facing criticism for its male-only membership policy in a university report.

The Speculative Society, or ‘Spec’ to its selected members, has announced that it intends to accept women at the Society’s next meeting in October. The news follows a vote by the Society in February, confirmed by two Spec members, where members voted three to one to admit women.

‘We have welcomed female candidates for membership since [the vote]’, read a press release issued by the Society this morning. ‘We hope that our newly established position on female membership will strengthen the Society and enable us to continue our 250-year-old tradition of advancing public speaking and literary composition long into the future.’

The club, which holds black tie meetings in candlelit Old College rooms, has counted major public figures among its ranks, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.

According to the Society, only ‘a handful’ of the estimated 250-300 members are University of Edinburgh students, though half are believed to be alumni. ‘Ordinary’ members, who are required to attend every meeting for three years, are limited to 30 under the Society’s rules.


‘Storm in a teacup’

The Society’s all-male membership has been subject to repeated criticism.

In 1998, law lecturers led by Elspeth Reid and Sandra Eden called on the university to investigate its links with the club. Staff argued that the Society should admit women and open its rooms up to other groups.

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 15.31.00Gavin MacColl, one of the Society’s rotating presidents at the time, dismissed the news as a ‘storm in a teacup’ and said the matter was being raised for ‘political motives’.

According to Scotland on Sunday, the university said it would investigate the Society’s claims to its rooms, however, as The Student revealed last November, no investigation ever took place.

In 2003, following scrutiny of the university’s relationship with the club, Rob Whiteman, former secretary to the Society, told The Sunday Times he was in favour of admitting female members, stating: ‘We have debated the issue of female members, and it will happen in the not too distant future.’

He added: ‘As with all the members, that person will have to be proposed and seconded. I don’t understand why we are so criticised. What about the golf clubs?’

As documents obtained by The Student under the Freedom of Information Act reveal, the comments came as a great surprise to university senior management, who exercised no formal supervision over the Society. Melvyn Cornish, then university secretary, wrote the following to Whiteman on February 26th:

Melvyn Cornish, former University of Edinburgh Secretary
Melvyn Cornish, former University of Edinburgh Secretary

‘I was interested to read the report in The Sunday Times which indicated that the Speculative Society had decided to admit women. I am deeply sceptical of all I read in the press, and wondered if you would feel able to let me know the formal position. This would simply be for background information, so that I can deal with any queries raised with me from a properly informed position.’

‘As you will well understand,’ he added. ‘In making this request I am in no way implying that the Society is under any obligation to report to the University about its activities or policies.’

Whilst the university maintains that the Society is an external organisation and therefore does not have to comply with university policy, the failure to investigate either the Society’s claims to its rooms or its all-male membership policy challenged principal Sir Timothy O’Shea’s commitment in October 2002 to tackling the university’s reputation as a ‘snobby place full of tweedy people with English accents.’

In 2013, O’Shea was invited to attend a Society dinner held in Old College on March 26th. The university has since confirmed that he did not attend the event and there is no suggestion that O’Shea is a member of the Society.

Raw File: Read the 2003 correspondence between then-university secretary Malvyn Cornish and then-Speculative Society secretary Rob Whiteman (document obtained by The Student via Freedom of Information request):


‘Students will not drop the issue (nor would we want them to)’

A fact unmentioned in this morning’s press release was that the Society had been given six months to consider accepting women and to open its doors to the public in a report by former senior vice principal Professor Mary Bownes published last October. The report, which was announced after The Student revealed the Society’s exclusive and rent-free use of university rooms, identified a ‘lack of current value’ to the university having the Society on its premises and the ‘very little use’ of the Society’s rooms as ‘key issues’ facing the university.

Professor Mary Bownes, University of Edinburgh Vice Principal Community Development
Professor Mary Bownes, University of Edinburgh Vice Principal Community Development

Bownes also suggested the Society should open its rooms to the public and, providing the club modernised with university staff and students wishing them to remain on campus, that any future agreement between the university and the Society should be ‘clear and open’.

Since 1819, the Society has made use of rooms granted to the club by the Town Council, patrons of the university at the time, for one evening every week between September and March. The rooms remain locked outside of meetings and, as The Student revealed last year, will remain untouched following the current £35 million Old College redevelopment project. The university retains ownership of the rooms, pays tax on them, has staff monitor them for fire hazards, and does not consider the Society to have ‘an inalienable right to occupy [the rooms] in perpetuity’.

This relationship came as a great worry to university staff during Bownes’ review, The Student can reveal.

According to email records, union representatives had raised concerns over the Society’s privileged position within Old College at a Combined Joint Consultative and Negotiating Committee (CJCNC) meeting held on September 29th.

Summaries of notes made by Bownes during meetings with senior staff note that staff consulted for the review considered the Society ‘unhealthy for the legal profession’ and that ‘students will not drop the issue (nor would we want them to).’

In one undated summary, describing a meeting with a vice principal scheduled for July 30th, the notes state: ‘the Speculative Society appears to have a choice between changing or finding other premises.’

‘Professor Bownes noted that the Society do not think they have ever aligned with the University or the student body and they do not want to be an undergraduate society,’ read summary notes of a meeting between Bownes and a Society spokesperson. ‘All female clubs exist in the University (for example a club which supports the family of international students and staff); why is the Speculative Society different?’

It went on: ‘However, admitting women has been on the agenda for some time for the Speculative Society; the office bearers are in favour of this.’

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 15.42.03A senior Law School figure, who met Bownes on July 7th, confirmed that the Society had ‘never been a part of the University’ and was an ‘outside body’ that did not have to comply with University policy. However, they maintained that the university retained ultimate ownership and control of the rooms.

Email records show that the same member of staff was also forwarded copies of ‘legal advice provided to the University’ over the Society’s occupation of the rooms. A list of documentation consulted in Bownes’ review reveals that correspondence between the university, The Speculative Society and solicitors took place between 2002 and 2003.

Attempts by The Student to obtain information on the legal advice sought by the university were refused under exemptions to the Freedom of Information Act.


‘One for later…’

Tim Leslie, current secretary to the Society, declined to be interviewed. Responding to a number of questions including how many female candidates had been welcomed for membership and whether the Society will pay for, or open up future access to, the Old College rooms, Leslie responded:

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 15.28.54‘I am afraid I do not have time to respond in full before your deadline and there are some questions in your email that I would not wish to provide comment on.

‘On the important matter of the rooms, the Society has enabled general access to its history and premises for many years. This has taken numerous forms including private tours, assistance with academic requests, public talks and our loans and gifts to museums and libraries, such as the National Museum of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland and the Edinburgh University libraries. In the spirit of widening public involvement in and appreciation of the Society we are working with the City of Literature to hold events marking Robert Louis Stevenson Day. We welcome ongoing discussion with the University regarding other possible events, and intend to meet with them in the near future.’

Asked why he would not respond to The Student’s questions and whether a Society spokesperson would agree to be interviewed in the future, Leslie responded: ‘One for later…’

The University of Edinburgh did not answer similar questions posed by The Student. Instead, Bownes issued a statement, saying: ‘We welcome the Speculative Society’s admission of women to membership and its willingness to make the rooms more accessible to the public. This is a positive change.’

Whilst admitting women was ‘a positive step towards inclusivity’, Dash Sekhar, the outgoing vice president academic affairs for Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA), said the Society remained ‘an elitist organisation that adds little for students, occupying rooms in an institution where space is already at a premium.’

Screen Shot 2015-05-19 at 15.52.00He added: ‘We will continue to raise these issues within University forums while our membership remains concerned.’

Urte Macikene, EUSA vice president services-elect, shared this view.

She told The Student: ‘The vote to accept female membership is an encouraging sign of the impact of student campaigns on campus, showing the Society was unable to ignore outside pressure through student media and protest.

‘This is precisely why we should not be complacent about the Speculative Society, and call for removing them from campus if they do not undertake serious further reforms to their secret, elitist, and nepotistic structures. The Spec Soc [sic] flies in the face of the values of our university and goals of the student body, even if they comply in theory with basic standards of human decency.’


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