I remember the moment, in the summer of last year, when I first saw the comments of the group chat that is again the focus of the University. It was a visceral feeling. Those comments are against everything that everyone holds dear in any society. Dehumanising, humiliating, and revolting. I’m not using the word ‘visceral’ for effect, but rather to try to describe the feeling. Let me try a different way. I was once so ill that my body went into shock. Shock is a word we can use quite loosely, but for any who have had it medically, you know that that it has a profound physical effect. It is why we use the term in wider language. But the shock effect that I felt on seeing those comments was different to my shock induced by my illness. That was painful and body wide. Seeing those comments created that same sense of pain in my stomach but it did not produce that physical impairment – instead, it produced a feeling of utter revulsion.
For many, this week has been the same in terms of impact. Many have seen these comments and had these emotions and intellectual responses. I know, because a lot of people have told me. My email inbox is full, there have been phone calls, petitions and of course, social media.
In the same way that a government does not control the judiciary, university senior management does not control the disciplinary process. Many of you have said that it should; specifically, that we should ban the 11 individuals involved in the group chat from campus. I need to explain why that is not going to happen.
First, I do not have that authority. Of course, it would be possible to change our rules and processes in the future so that I could. But I do hope that we do not go there. To give one person the authority to make such decisions is surely wrong and open to legal challenge.
Second, in the university processes, not all 11 have been found to be guilty. Some on the chat did not participate, and indeed, protested against what was being said. To ban those would be against our processes, natural justice and, again, would probably be illegal.
I say that now because, of course, we have a duty of care to all involved – supporting those who were affected by the group chat, and those who were part of it - as they are our students too. When any student is convicted of a disciplinary offence, that is not an end to our duty of care, in the same way in which the state has a duty of care to someone convicted and punished.
In court, facts and reactions are decided by a jury. We have a very similar process at Warwick. While someone senior will chair the panel, the other members are students and academics. They see all the evidence, they hear mitigation, they make a decision.
In this case, the first panel made a decision about the case in front of them and came to a set of judgements. Two of those convicted appealed against their sentence, and brought new evidence. A second panel was therefore constituted to hear that evidence, and came to a judgement that in the light of that material, the sentences – not the judgement of guilt – should be reduced.
All involved were then informed, after due legal processes. For legal reasons, that was supposed to be confidential. That confidentiality has of course been broken.
What can we say further on this case? Very little. And that is because there is a high likelihood of legal action being taken (not by the university) and as such, further comment is liable to be used in evidence. Some people have been found guilty of a disciplinary offence at the university, and they will carry that forward on their cvs.
What can we say further about what all this means though? Quite a lot. I have not responded in public so far because it is important to listen. And what I am hearing is this. Firstly, that the offence was deeply offensive. We need to be much stronger about the values that underpin this university, and we must find ways of communicating that. Through much of this year the President of the Student Union has argued for a statement of values. Liam Jackson and I spoke to the new incoming students in September, and we set out our university values then. But that is not enough, and we need to take up Liam’s challenge, and commit ourselves to communicate our values loudly and regularly.
Second, if we have a fuller statement of values, we need to look at how we act when they are breached. There are some principles that I believe we should keep. Disciplinary decisions should not be part of senior management control. The Vice Chancellor should not be able to make arbitrary decisions. Evidence and testimony should be heard by volunteer members of the university. But I am not convinced that we have unanimity on those points, and before we move forward to review how we implement punishment for breaches of our values, we need to know where we stand on that.
I am not going to propose a way forward on these important and fundamental issues today, because I think that there is a lot more listening to do first. But I will come back, transparently, on these points.
Many, many of our community and beyond have written to me. Under all normal circumstances, I would write back to everyone. But there are so many communications, I am going to ask you all to allow me please to use this communication as my first response to you all. I look forward to working with you all in the weeks and months ahead.