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UCU concerns on contributor content on University’s Strategy Consultation padlet

We recently wrote to the Vice-Chancellor raising serious concerns about the discriminatory nature of some comments posted on the University’s Strategy Consultation padlet site.  Please see below our email and the VC’s response.

 

From: ucu <ucu@soton.ac.uk>
Sent: 26 April 2021 12:47
To: Vice-Chancellor <vice-chancellor@soton.ac.uk>
Cc: Mark Spearing <S.M.Spearing@soton.ac.uk>; Camilla Gibson <C.R.L.Gibson@soton.ac.uk>; Lucy Watson <Lucy.Watson@soton.ac.uk>
Subject: UCU concerns on contributor content on Padlet for University Strategy

Dear Vice Chancellor

We are writing to you to express our dismay at some of the remarks we have read on the Padlet you authorised for the University community to share their views on the University of Southampton Strategy.

It is extremely disturbing to see a few people have chosen to use this platform to anonymously air aggressively racist and transphobic views under the guise of ‘free speech’. [We included screenshots from Padlet of these comments; the Padlet has now been removed.]

While we can see the benefit of using such platforms in educational settings to enable people to contribute to discussion, this Padlet is accessible on SUSSED and open to anyone to use or abuse as they see fit. We are concerned that allowing these posts to remain in the public domain risks serious reputational damage, particularly when staff across the University are working hard to make it an inclusive place to work and study. 

These comments are directed at colleagues who work in gender and race studies and one of them is an attack on the student-led de-colonizing the curriculum plan. They are not relevant to the university strategy document, and they create a hostile environment for both staff and students. To allow these comments to remain unchallenged goes against the stated aims of the UoSRespect campaign and recent EDI initiatives which have been widely publicised. 

We are concerned that the Senior Management Team thought it appropriate to use this platform for this type of consultation without considering the possibility of its misuse. As employers, you have a duty of care for your staff and students, and we question whether the impacts of this open unregulated Padlet have really been thought through. Freedom of expression must always be balanced with our Public Sector equality duty, which stresses the legal responsibility of HE providers to think about how they can promote equality and minimise tension and prejudice between different groups on campus. A number of these comments have made both staff and students feel vilified and marginalized.

It is our responsibility as the University’s UCU branch executive committee to actively and publicly oppose discrimination and discriminatory and offensive language wherever it is found. Therefore, we ask that managers reconsider their approach to creating an inclusive and appropriate space for this online consultation, including some system of moderation with a clearly defined set of rules about how moderation will work. This would rebuild trust in the process and reassure colleagues that the hostility expressed by these anonymous individuals will not be allowed to continue unchecked and should not, therefore, dissuade them from engaging as valued members of the University community.

We look forward to hearing back from you.  

Southampton UCU Executive Committee

—————————— 

From: Vice-Chancellor <vice-chancellor@soton.ac.uk>
Sent: 28 April 2021 10:13
To: ucu <ucu@soton.ac.uk>
Subject: RE: UCU concerns on contributor content on Padlet for University Strategy

Dear UCU Colleagues,

Thank you for raising the issue around a small number of the posts to the recently launched Strategy Consultation on the Padlet site. Like you, I was disappointed to see that a small minority of anonymous posts did not really play to the values we aspire to of courtesy and respect.  There will be members of our community who will hold some of the points that were criticised very dearly. Any member of our University community affected by this can access support via volunteer Harassment Contacts, our staff networks or their line manager.

These few posts really ran counter to the intent behind running the consultation an open, co-designed way as this was in direct response to the community’s feedback that they wanted a more active and inclusive role in shaping the strategy. It was recognised that adopting a co-design methodology is never without risk. This was not simply a decision of senior management as the approach was explored in detail with a range of academic colleagues who are experts in this area.  One of the points made by our co-design expert colleagues was that such a community approach may surface some of the more challenging views that colleagues hold. The weight of community response then should cause people to reflect on others’ viewpoints. It was noticeable in the cases that you highlight that our community in their responses were self-moderating, resulting in criticism of the tone of some comments as well as a diversity of perspectives.  In that context I would also note that the issues that you draw attention to include ones which are part of the current national discourse. Given the current focus on free speech a University should not censor challenging or uncomfortable debate, but encourage a civil exchange of views, indeed our regulatory responsibilities expect the promotion of free speech rather than its restriction.

Since the launch of the consultation less than a week ago our initial assumptions about the security of the Padlet have been tested in action. The issue of external security has also been raised by a few other people. We are not comfortable with the level of security that has been achieved; this has resulted in the Padlet being replaced yesterday with an online reporting form that accords colleagues a more rigorous level of protection as they post their responses.

We also heard from some colleagues whilst the Padlet was live that the small number of less than civil posts was deterring engagement. I hope that the swift action described above will encourage people to have their say. Responses are being sought from both individuals and teams/networks and mangers will reinforce the values of respect, courtesy and dignity when highlighting this opportunity.

It is important we have strong engagement and a civil exchange of views in arriving at our strategy.

With best regards,

Mark

 

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