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Vice-Chancellor news

Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff

18 June 2020

Dear colleague,

I devoted most of my email of 7 May 2020 to the coronavirus crisis, which is what you would expect, but I also made the point that the pandemic does not mean that we should ignore pre-existing matters of great concern such as race equality. Less than three weeks later, on May 25, the horrific murder of George Floyd was captured on camera in Minneapolis. The impunity of his killing, in that the officer concerned knew he was being filmed and that the victim’s desperate pleas for his life were being recorded, yet persisted in maintaining the lethal restraint until it was too late, shocked the world. Very sadly, Mr Floyd’s death was part of a long-standing pattern, preceded as it was on March 13 by the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor by police in Louisville, KT, and followed on June 12 by the death of Rayshard Brooks in a similar manner in Atlanta, GA.

These acts were emblematic of a much wider problem that affects many countries and takes myriad forms, the effects of which we have all seen expressed in widespread Black Lives Matter demonstrations.  I know that individual members of Cardiff University shared the revulsion that led to the global protests, but I acknowledge that as an institution we responded late and in a manner that lacked impact. Partly in consequence we received emails from students and staff, asking us to make a stronger, clearer statement, and you can read my response here. You will be aware that I have devoted much attention to this subject in recent times, and we have made some progress, but much remains to be done and the problem of racism is very far from being resolved. I hope that in acknowledging and recognising the problem, and talking about it, we are in a better position than we were, but we do need to take further action to make real change.

We need much greater understanding, awareness and acknowledgment of white privilege, for example, and we will be making an announcement in the near future about how we intend to support and encourage that development. We must take seriously complaints about racism, follow them up and act on them. This is a live issue because we have recently received a serious complaint from students that we will be responding to as swiftly and comprehensively as possible. I will be consulting on the idea of introducing a single point of contact – perhaps even an ombudsman role – to ensure that complaints about racism are promptly followed up and responded to. In 2018 we carried out a review of potential historical links between Cardiff University and the slave trade; we found none, but in the light of recent events will conduct a further audit of our public art and sculpture. We will expand our library holdings in areas such as Black History and explore ways in which we can understand, disseminate and celebrate the diversity in our history not only as a university but as a city and country.

While incidents of violence and disorder dominate the headlines, nobody should be in any doubt about the strength of feeling evident in the peaceful Black Lives Matter protests that took place throughout the UK, including here in Cardiff. The peaceful protest in Bute Park, which mandated social distancing and face-mask wearing, was well attended and organised by one of our own students. Anybody who was there will have heard moving testimony on the experience of racism in this country, including in Cardiff. It goes without saying that I am not the person to try to explain the experience of racism in British universities. I highly recommend that you read the excellent article  ‘A case to answer’ by Valerie Amos, my counterpart at SOAS. In fact, as a white person with both privilege and power, it is my job to listen, and to act on advice. What I hear is that people react in different ways and the diversity that is present across society is of course present across the BAME community too, which is far from homogenous and itself composed of multiple communities, traditions and cultures. But there are many people who have felt extremely hurt, angry and subject to a range of negative emotions and we must take account of the potential effect on both staff and students. Above all we must continue to listen, to act and to work with BAME colleagues and students on important projects such as improving the diversity of our leadership cadre in the University, closing the awarding gap, decolonising the curriculum and ensuring equality of opportunity for students and applicants. I regret not having understood and acted on these issues earlier in my tenure as Vice-Chancellor, and feel we must take this historic opportunity to make real change, building on the foundation that we have begun to establish in recent times.

Moving on to other matters, thank you to those who took the trouble to attend the all-staff webinar last week. I should say that one of the reasons for scheduling the event when we did was that we hoped that by then we would have made sufficient progress to make an announcement about next steps, but in the event were unable to do so and will need to take more time. I apologise to those who were expecting more than an update, but I hope it was useful for us to share some of the thinking behind the work we are doing to ensure that we secure our position as far as possible for next year. We received more than 500 questions during the event and will respond to them. It’s a lot of work as I’m sure you can imagine so it is not yet complete, but we are grouping the questions by theme and will be publishing them with responses next week. One theme that has already emerged is a desire for us to facilitate more flexible working, and we will take that forward as swiftly as we can. We will hold further such events, especially as and when there are new developments in this unpredictable and changing environment.

At the meeting of Senate held on 17 June we discussed, among many other things, the consultation on the recast Way Forward document which is presently underway. If you have not yet responded you can do so here. Some people have been asking what the difference is between  the existing Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) and the Critical Success Factors outlined in the proposals. Insofar as they are still achievable (and not, for example, compromised by an inability to travel freely), the KPIs will still be monitored in the sub-strategies to which they relate. However, the priority now is not performance indicators but focussing on the critical success factors that will allow us to come through the coming difficult few years and emerge into a post-COVID world in as strong a position as possible. In short, as an institution we need to survive and thrive, and to do so we need to concentrate on staff and student health, safety and wellbeing, financial sustainability, student experience, research, and civic mission with a particular emphasis on our response to COVID. We will need to reduce workload as far as we can to allow us to maintain that focus and be prepared to make the compromises necessary for success. We must remember that the Way Forward sets a direction of travel, it does not determine every detail of what we do. This is why we have undertaken a light-touch consultation, the results of which we will incorporate into a paper for Council next month.

Finally, an early outcome of the consultation is people asking what has happened to Brexit. This is a fair point, especially since the prospects of a comprehensive agreement with the EU seem to be very much reduced, and any agreement will probably be limited in scope. It is clearly possible that only the most urgent matters that both sides are prepared to treat as a top priority will be agreed. I cannot cover all the ramifications of this in this email, but I will come back to it in future, especially when we know more about the progress of the negotiations. What I would say is that we should continue to engage fully with the EU research mechanisms while we can, and the same goes for Erasmus+ and other existing schemes. As I understand it the UK government is intending to institute domestic alternatives if it proves impossible to reach agreement on our participation as of 1 January 2021, and we are being consulted on those matters. In terms of the recast Way Forward, its provisions will encourage us to focus on the important priorities in the event of a major change at the end of the transition period, just as it allows us to do the same in respect of the highly unpredictable coronavirus emergency.

With best wishes Colin Riordan