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Speculative Society cancels planned 250th anniversary dinner in Old College

ByAlex Shaw

Nov 21, 2014

Bookings made by the Speculative Society to hire Old College rooms as part of the club’s planned 250th anniversary celebrations have been cancelled, The Student can reveal.

The Society – known as the “Spec” to its members – was founded in 1764 “for improvement in literary composition and public speaking” and has counted former Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home, the Duke of Edinburgh and Robert Louis Stevenson among its ranks.

A student protest, supported by members of Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) staff, had been arranged to picket the event. The protest, organised by EUSA Trustee Urte Macikenaite, cited concerns over the Society’s presence within University grounds.

The event description stated: “The University is unwilling to seriously investigate its relationship with the Society, much less to suspend the Society’s use of the rooms or seriously demand its reform. Senior management are making a clear choice to privilege the interests of an all-male elite over the concerns of students about equality. We need to make it clear this isn’t the kind of university of community we want to be part of.”

Responding to the cancellation, EUSA Vice President Societies and Activities Eve Livingstone said: “In light of concerning University investigations uncovering their all-male membership and closed meetings, we welcome the news that the Speculative Society have cancelled the anniversary celebration apparently due to have taken place on campus.”

The University’s relationship with the Society has come under scrutiny since March, after The Student reported that the Society was occupying its meeting rooms rent-free and that staff and students had raised concerns over the club’s all-male membership policy.

A University review, led by Professor Mary Bownes, Vice Principal Community Development (who retired as Senior Vice Principal in September), was announced shortly after The Student’s findings and concluded in late October.

The review identified the “very little use” of the Society’s rooms and a “lack of current value to the [University] having the Society present on its premises” as “key issues” affecting the University. A “lack of alignment” over the Society’s all-male membership and the University’s “clearly stated commitment to equality and diversity” was also noted in Bownes’ report.

Whilst the Society has no rules banning female members and – as the review highlighted – there “is no legal requirement for any private members club” to accept them, no women have ever been admitted as Spec members.

The report suggested the Society be given six months to admit female members and to open its meeting rooms to the public, “especially on open days”. It added that any future agreement on the Society’s position within University grounds should be “clear and open”.

The review did not state how the findings would be enforced or what would happen if the Society did not follow the suggestions after six months.

As The Student reported on October 21, documents released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the Society had made a provisional booking on February 17 to hire several Old College rooms for Saturday 22 November. According to the documents, a member of UOEAL staff member had contacted the Society on July 21, in the middle of the University’s review, to ask whether they wished to confirm the bookings.

Both the University and UoE Accommodation Ltd – the legal subsidiary dealing with the use of University facilities – refused to release information to The Student relating to whether the booking had been confirmed, citing a “public interest in […] being able to conduct its business without disruption; to protect the safety of its staff, students and visitors; and to prevent crime.”

On November 7, Professor Jane Norman, Vice Principal Equality and Diversity, told the audience of a University Ethics Forum panel discussion: “The Society should not be in any relationship to the University. The University has to be very clear that this cannot continue in this form.”

Speaking at the Scottish National Gallery on Wednesday 19 November, Professor David Purdie, “Extraordinary member” of the Society and Honorary Fellow of the University’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (IASH), gave a lecture in praise of the Society’s contribution to the University and to wider society.

The talk, entitled ‘The Speculative Society: 250 years of Debate, Argument – and Delight’, was held in the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre as a free event open to the public. Many members of the Society were in attendance.

Introducing himself as “Mr David Purdie” instead of using the title ‘Professor’, Purdie said: “Whatever title you may have [on entering a Society meeting] […] you leave it by the door.” He added: “We are all ‘Misters’. For now.” The comment drew laughter from the audience.

During the talk, Purdie rejected allegations that the Society had any purpose other than its original aims of furthering public speaking and intellectual debate. He also stated that the Society had contributed towards the construction to Old College building, a fact, he argued, that was often overlooked in press coverage of the Society.

The talk also addressed debates over female membership to the Society, with Purdie citing the decision of members of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews (R&A) who voted to lift the ban on female members earlier in September.

“We shall see. The Spec will discuss it, we shall come to a view,” he said; adding that any decision by the Society would be respected by its members.

Responding to questions by The Student on Bownes’ review noting a “lack of current value” to the University regarding its connection to the Society, Purdie rejected this view, stating that the Society had been of benefit to many University staff and students over its history. He went on to praise the “symbiotic relationship” between the University and the Spec, which was based on “grace and favour”.

A spokesperson for the University of Edinburgh said: “There are no longer any bookings for Old College rooms on 22 November. There are no bookings for these spaces on any date under the Speculative Society.”

A spokesperson for the Speculative Society could not be reached for comment.

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