The Kids Are Alright – But How Woke Is Your Registrar?

David Duncan, Chief Operating Officer and University Secretary at the University of Glasgow, discusses cultural dissonance on campus.

Many years ago, while researching my doctoral thesis, I travelled from Johannesburg, across the north-west Transvaal and over the border to Gaborone. The plan was to visit a friend who had the same PhD supervisor as I and to take a break from the repressive atmosphere of South Africa’s State of Emergency.

The coach line thoughtfully provided a film to while away the journey – Norman Taurog’s Blue Hawaii – a curious choice for viewing in a racially segregated society, if you’ve ever seen it. We were only stopped at one roadblock; the nervous travellers lined up at the roadside to be searched by unsmiling Defence Force troops with semi-automatic weapons. No one was minded to discuss the finer points of Elvis Presley’s acting skills.

Once settled in at the destination, my host proposed we pass the evening with a cultural experience typical of the area. We drove the family Mercedes out of town and along dusty, rutted tracks until a huge, black and white, Tudor mansion hove into view. “Welcome to the old ‘Bull and Bush’”, announced my companion with a flourish.

The mock Elizabethan splendour of the night club in the middle of nowhere rocked to the sounds of late 1980s synthesizer music. It was packed to the gunnels with good looking Scandinavian youths and even better looking Botswanan party-goers. “The women at the bar are very friendly”, I remarked approvingly, as we shouldered our way through the crowd with a tray of drinks. This provoked much eye-rolling at my naïveté – 30 years later, my friend still brings that up when we meet.

So, there we were – in a Tudor manor house in the African bush, amid a throng of Norwegians and Batswana, dancing to Howard Jones. I didn’t know it at the time, but now realise I was experiencing a form of ‘cultural dissonance’, discomfited by the juxtaposition of cultures and styles. Where was I and what was I doing there? The ready flow of Windhoek beer probably did little to help my state of mind.

Cultural dissonance is defined as an uncomfortable sense of discord, disharmony, confusion or conflict experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment. I expect many registrars and chief operating officers may be suffering from this, as social attitudes change at a bewildering rate. As societal perspectives shift, with university campuses often in the forefront, professional support staff find themselves confronted with multiple decisions relating to policy, deployment of resource and operational practice. This can lead to mis-steps and conflict which at its worst is conducted in an aggressive and denunciatory spirit. If not handled carefully, these matters can cause serious reputational damage to our institutions.

Let us consider four examples.

No one can fail to be aware of the current public discussion about transgender people, or about gender fluidity. Issues such as allowing individuals to change their gender on official records, the use of an individual’s preferred pronouns, the creation of gender neutral toilets, installation of sanitary bins in male-designated toilets, concerns about the personal safety of students, to name only a few, can all land on the registrar’s desk. Likewise, we can be called to mediate in disputes between opposing perspectives based on gender identity.

Also current is the debate on mental health. As with gender, mental health has quite rapidly assumed a huge importance in public discourse. This may be partly the recognition of a problem that always existed but which few people talked about, in a buttoned-up, pull-yourself-together, British sort of way; or it may be that more people than ever before are finding it difficult to cope with a range of mental health conditions.

Certainly, on campus, there has been a steep increase in the number of students seeking counselling and other forms of professional support. Politicians have become involved, keen to sponsor guidance but not, generally, to effect fundamental changes to public health provision. Universities are frequently criticised for failing to protect the mental health of their students, or to find ways of promoting wellbeing and building up their students’ resilience. We could argue for years about whether these are matters for which HEIs should take primary responsibility, but a coherent response is demanded at institutional and sector level – the problem will simply not go away.

A further subject of debate relates to student and staff conduct. We all agree that members of the university community should behave towards each other with courtesy and respect; ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’, as the Scripture has it. But when it comes to conduct, students sometimes expect a much more robust response than our quasi-legal policies normally permit. Should we, for example, apply precautionary suspensions to individuals accused of harassment? Is a balance-of-probabilities standard of proof sufficient to expel an individual accused of transgressing when no criminal investigation has taken place? And should we not only encourage anonymous reports but also follow up and act on them?

In this context as in other areas, language is fought over, with words we once thought we understood changing their meaning. One example of this is ‘violence’, which used to denote physical assault, but now also encompasses emotional harm or trauma. Once again, we must put in place robust policies and procedures, support mechanisms and training packages while reacting to frequent shifts in public (or at least student) expectations.

A final, broad example relates to statues, imagery and symbols on the one hand, and funding and benefactions on the other. In some ways this is easier to deal with – if all the portraits in your public meeting rooms are men, put up more pictures of women; be inclusive in your naming of buildings; take down that statue of an imperialist oppressor; and if your university has historically benefited from sources of funding that are morally suspect, be open and transparent about it. Don’t accept money from a firm that makes land mines; politely decline that donation from the son of a well-known dictator; invest your money in an ethical way; try not to give honorary degrees to war criminals.

There may be a consensus that these are the right things to do, and we might concede that in the past, our institutions have sometimes been slow to respond to the moral imperative. But in each of these areas, there is room for argument, dissent, even rage when particular perspectives are not adopted. Do you pay that money back? Remove a painting of a local hero because of one dubious aspect of their biography? Rescind honorary degrees and edit out the name of a major benefactor? The challenges seem to be becoming more complicated, and there appear to be more of them year on year.

The term ‘woke’ refers to a perceived awareness of issues relating to social justice – in the US, it is often but not exclusively focused on racial discrimination. Registrars need to be woke – or, at least, alive to the topics that our students regard as priorities, especially where they relate to justice and discrimination. The speed with which the discourse moves and the level of awareness that heads of university administration need to demonstrate are rising, while the range of issues is expanding. As ever, the AHUA provides an excellent forum for discussing matters of concern, sharing good ideas and finding pathways through difficult terrain.