The Cult of Stupid
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The Cult of Stupid

It’s All Gone South

Fear and Loathing in Durham City

South College Durham (personal photo May 2021)

DISCLAIMER: I am writing this in a personal capacity as an alumnus of the University

On 3 December South College held its pre-Christmas formal. Nothing unusual or untoward there, you may think: an occasion for ruminating on a first term back in Durham, with a semblance of normal student life resuming again after the upheavals of the last 18 months. It’s not how things turned out. The Principal of the College, Professor Tim Luckhurst, had invited a speaker, and that’s where the trouble started. The speaker was Rod Liddle. And Liddle proceeded to stand up and be Rod Liddle. The assembled body of students made their collective displeasure known, and many left during his address. Afterwards, the principal (and apparently his wife) were not pleased by this action, and criticised students who had done so. He has later stepped back from some of these earlier remarks, but his general tone has changed little. The University has expressed a limited opinion on the reported facts, and has announced it is investigating matters.

The student newspaper, Palatinate has now published a number of related stories¹²³ about the issue, but that’s not quite my angle. I’m an alumnus of the University, and it makes me sad to see it being dragged through the national press and media in the way it has been. And, in a purely personal fashion, the fact that I am an alumnus means that these things reflect on me too by association, because I am part of that body politic.

One of the early criticisms I saw in social media reports following the blow-up of the initial story was that High Table formals still existed in the 21st century, that they were objectionable and shouldn’t even happen. Actually, as part of college life communal dining was often quite fun. I was also lucky to be part of a college that very deliberately resisted much of the formality of such occasions that other colleges stick with to this day. High Table wasn’t really a big deal, and the only time I ever saw speeches made from there were on my very first night as a student, when the Principal and the JCR President welcomed us at our first meal. Formals are a part of Durham college life and, as a rule they are totally uncontroversial events⁴, even if they are sometimes a chore. Hight Table and formals are not the issue here. Professor Luckhurst deciding, somewhat unusually, to engage an external after-dinner speaker perhaps is more pertinent.

But here, I’ll be momentarily a little more charitable to Professor Luckhurst. South is Durham’s newest college, having opened its doors to students in 2020. As such, it’s something of a tabula rasa, with no history or essential character of its own: it has to create and evolve one. Both the student body and the Principal are key factors in forming this character, so perhaps Prof. Luckhurst thought he might be testing the waters to see what kind of college spirit he would be hoping to foster. In that sense, putting someone challenging before the student body is possibly an admissable tactic, albeit risky.

But that’s about as far as the admissability goes in my opinion. He chose Rod Liddle as his speaker. Liddle carries an uncomfortable amount of baggage as a controversialist columnist, and Prof. Luckhurst knows that, having been a personal friend of many years standing, as well as a professional colleague. His invite was supposedly extended without the student body having full knowledge until quite late in the process. Apparently, the JCR President was made aware of the speaker 48 hours before, but how much the full student corpus knew beforehand is less clear. Imposing a speaker at a social gathering (albeit formal) in this way, which they also had to pay to attend, is not hugely polite. If Liddle had stood up and made these remarks in a debate in the Union Society as an invited speaker, I daresay there’d be little more than a raised eyebrow; other speakers would have been able to engage with him in such a context, indeed that would have been the point. That’s not the case here.

Prof. Luckhurst’s responses following the student protest appear to centre around a defence of the right of free speech, and his opinion that there is no right not to be offended. While principles of academic free speech are indeed precious and deeply prized, the context in which Liddle’s remarks were made bring this into question. These students were at a meal, in their home, supposedly in the care of their University family. This was not academic discourse. And as anyone who has worked in HE knows, this duty of care is generally taken very seriously by those who are given it; it most certainly was when given to me. Further, while Liddle has every right to stand up and say what he wishes to when invited by the Principal, absolutely no one else is obliged to have to sit and listen. Liddle’s freedom of speech is utterly unaffected by their actions. The immediate reaction of the Principal of his wife to the reaction students was intemperate and misguided. That is understandable perhaps: in the heat of the moment sometimes we phrase complex thoughts in ways we may regret later, but his subsequent statements haven’t made things much better. While one does not strictly speaking have a right not to be offended, one does have a right to demur. The students were exercising exactly the kind of intellectual assertiveness and lack of deference to authority he says he wants to foster, it’s just rather incconvenient that they didn’t agree with him.

The fact that he and Liddle are friends must also mean that the way events played out have been an embarrassment for him, and perhaps that has resulted in Prof. Luckhurst’s judgement and objectivity in the matter being somewhat compromised. It’s not a terrible thing to defend one’s friends, but there are reasonable limits to how far it is sensible to go when so doing. It is not unreasonable to question his judgement at so spectacularly failing to read the mood of the student body before, during, and especially following these events.

I notice that as I write today DSU (the Durham Students’ Union) have called for him to resign. I’m not sure whether this is the right course or not at present, but it’s fairly clear that if he does stay he will have to do a great deal of work to repair the relationship between himself and his students. It wouldn’t shock me if an emergency meeting of the JCR was convened to discuss their confidence or otherwise in him before term ends on 10 December. If that happened I’m not sure he could realistically stay in post.

References & Notes




4 Except for the one formal in my first year that ended in some people deciding a food fight would be a lark . It was made very clear afterwards by the Principal that he neither wished, nor expected, it to happen again. It did not.


10 December: The text “If Liddle had stood up and made these remarks …” added for further clarification.

No, I distinctly said, “CULT”

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Darren Stephens

Darren Stephens

A northern man

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