Whose University? This isn’t the way to find out

Ben Redwood 20 December 2014

Far more threatening to the marginalisation of the student voice than Dr. Paul Ryan, the Lay Dean of King's' recent comments, is the laziness of Whose University?. Their claim that the University of Cambridge is “unaccountable” results in a campaign that does not attempt to hold them accountable. The campaign has not conducted any solid research, or made any real attempt to actually gain justice for those who have felt victimised.

You would need to have tried pretty hard to miss the escalating interactions between Whose University? and Dr. Paul Ryan, Lay Dean of King’s, this week. He’s been described as “working to deny the lived experiences of students”, being “hostile and dismissive”, and “eager to silence” Whose University?’s student voice.  

Dr. Paul Ryan has denied these accusations, emphasising that his recent article on Open Democracy, for example, is addressing “the content of the article, and not the merits of the campaign as a whole.”

He did not however acknowledge in any of his statements or comments whether King's College recognised the legitimacy of the initimidation felt by King's interviewees this week, published as a testimony on the WU? Facebook page. That's because nobody asked him at any point.

In fact, when shown the testimony he stated that “testimony like that from an admissions candidate has potential credibility, and it would prompt investigation were it made directly to a tutor. If taken to be genuine, it would increase support for the recently adopted policy of segregating outside diners from the bar during Admissions week.” Hardly unaccountable.

Though the solution favoured in an anonymous message to Dr. Ryan published on the WU? Facebook page claimed that the most appropriate solution was to “repeat interviews week in its entirety.”

Furthermore, WU? described the University of Cambridge to The Cambridge Student as “the site of systemic social cleansing”, which seems a little harsh. According to a quick search on Google, ‘social cleansing’ is “the large-scale removal from an area of members of a social category regarded as undesirable.” Again, it heavily implies a principle of conscious, selective discrimination at work in the University's system.

Just to double-check I asked Dr. Ryan whether he is out to oppress the student body and any minorities within it, to which he replied that “that's hardly an answer you would expect a yes to.”

“Suited-and-booted glory” was the phrase that WU? slightly snidely used to describe the corporate guests at King’s. Yes, offence was caused by their image – but in behavioural terms the event looks about as debauched as a librarian's funeral. Nor is it accurate that “at the moment, our university belongs to these people.” It wasn’t the corporates’ fault that King’s’ administration made a mistake.

Dr. Ryan has criticised WU?'s statements, yes, but not their principles. Yet people are repeatedly confusing these two objects of criticism.

Ryan's original email, stating that holding other's possessions in one's room is against college policy, wasn't written because the dehumanisation of young adults fills him with sweet, sweet adrenaline. It was written because it is assessed as unsafe in practice, and because enforcing the rules is his job.

Nor did it have anything to do with politics, when The Tab claimed a perfectly characteristic iteration of College policy as “uncharacteristically inegalitarian”. Are they unfamiliar with College emails? Were they expecting notification by Marx-themed strip-o-gram?

Marx strip-o-grams, coming to this totally non-distinctive college near you. Credit: Marco Barisione

Such continual misinterpretation leaves people feeling reluctant to voice their opinions at all. When I set out to write this, a friend of mine warned me that I shouldn't bother. He said I would be attacked for attacking the marginalised. It's sad that people assume that aggression is the automatic response.

There's a difference between the testimony of a student who was forced to intermit a week after attempting suicide, and Dr. Ryan's criticising the inaccuracy and misinterpretation of the WU? article. The disproportionate fuss around the latter non-issue, that is trivial in comparison to the former, could almost be funny if it wasn't so tragic.

The campaign's current aim and purpose is to collate testimonies of how students have been poorly treated by the University. Which is fair enough, apart from when they then might want to make accusations against those responsible, and they can't identify the evidence connecting the cause and effect.

I asked WU? what research they've conducted, and they replied: “The lived experiences we publish constitute our qualitative research.” This limit of scope is not good enough.

WU? have little faith in the University's ability to change. They state that Ryan's comments were “exemplary of the manner in which the university authorities have dealt with student activism in recent years. [Students] have been ignored, harassed or, as we saw at Warwick recently, assaulted.”

Perhaps this is true. But that’s no excuse for sloppy research and sloppy accusations. Nor are arguments that rile people on both sides doing anything to provoke positive change.

This change is not impossible, though, as Dr. Ryan agrees: "changes favoured by student representatives do occur within the system, albeit in rather piecemeal and ad hoc fashion, and that the motor force tends to be provided by those reps […] It's not a bad system, though it does consume much time."

King's porters, meanwhile, are undisputedly awesome. Credit: Punting Cambridge

I asked Dr. Ryan to suggest a direction in which research might be conducted. He said that asking around about when and to what extent individual Colleges have allowed students more freedom with their rents might flag up any College policies that remain restrictive.

If testimonies were collated with concrete data, cases might be built against individual colleges continually failing their students. Calls could be made for internal inquiries, with testimonies as a launch pad for real action. Of course, it might not work, but it's probably a better idea than wasting time on exaggerated accusations.

I’m not attempting to deny the validity of Whose University? in general. Indeed, the problems evident in some of the more striking testimonies from Whose University? just go to show how important it is that we get this right. A failure to hold the university accountable through testimony-based campaigns and tangible policy change and is far more likely to “threaten to silence people already marginalized” than to enact the real support and real change they so desperately need.

Whose University? staying bitter won't make anything better.