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Vice-Chancellor news

New academic year, Stonewall, Mary Rose

30 June 2021

Read a message from the Vice-Chancellor sent to staff today (30 June 2021).

Dear colleague

Everybody has been personally affected by the way in which the Covid crisis disrupts our ability to plan, and it is no different for Cardiff University. That is why, when looking to the next academic year, we decided to plan for three main scenarios, using a traffic-light system to indicate degrees of control. The first is the one that we believe to be most likely, given the success of the vaccination programme in the UK and the cautious manner in which the Welsh Government is handling Covid in Wales. In this green scenario we will still be taking some measures to help restrict the spread of any potential infection, ensuring that our early warning systems (via our screening service and other means of monitoring) are active and will allow us to take swift action if necessary. At least for the first term we are likely to be recommending mask-wearing in University buildings and retaining some or all elements of our one-way systems, as well as continuing to ensure appropriate hygiene measures and that ventilation remains a primary consideration. However, under this scenario we will be using our buildings and facilities much more than we have been able to in the past year, even if it will not be in a wholly unrestricted way at this stage. The second, amber scenario is for a retention or re-introduction of the two-metre social distancing protocols that we have become used to, allowing us to proceed with a limited amount of in-person teaching and facilities use. The third is a red scenario which would mean that only essential in-person teaching and learning would take place, and there would be significant restrictions on the use of our facilities (as in the post-Christmas period of this year). We are confident that we will be able to switch rapidly between these scenarios as necessary.

As I write, we are expecting a Welsh Government announcement that will broadly allow us to proceed on green as outlined above. We can expect somewhat more flexibility than our original concept of any class with over 60 participants needing to take place online, which would remove the cliff-edge disadvantage of placing an absolute upper limit on classes, whereby 59 would  be acceptable but 61 not. Under the expected Welsh government guidance, there will be more options in terms of timetabling and more freedom for Schools to choose which classes should be held in person and which would be better delivered online. We should also be able to operate our social spaces, labs, libraries and other similar facilities in a way that protects the health and safety of all users, but is closer to the position in 2019 than 2020.

Many of you will be aware that an open letter from 16 Cardiff University academics was published earlier this month, addressed to me and suggesting that the University should review our membership of the Diversity Champions scheme run by the LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall, citing threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression. A counter-letter was then published, again addressed to me, and signed by more than 145 staff and more than a thousand students, alumni and others, registering their opposition to the original letter, disputing a number of claims made within it, and requesting that our association with Stonewall be maintained. We then published a statement responding to issues raised in both letters which you can see here. I also replied to each group of signatories separately, addressing their specific concerns. During this period of public debate I received a small number of further communications, all of which have been replied to.

After the publication of the first letter a small demonstration took place outside Main Building, at which material was distributed (and later circulated on social media) that would breach our guidelines on dignity and respect, and which has been referred to police in order to address understandable concerns raised by the signatories of the original letter. It does not appear that members of the University are responsible for that content, but I must stress that behaviour of this sort is entirely unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our community. Similarly, the rights and needs of our LBGTQ+ community must be protected, and I am particularly concerned that we support and protect those members of that community who are trans staff and students. I am acutely conscious of the prejudice and abuse that trans people face on a daily basis and am absolutely committed to ensuring that they feel safe and supported at Cardiff University. That does not of course preclude supporting the rights of other groups too, and we must listen to everybody’s concerns and address them as best we can as a community.

I note that the signatories of the original letter affirm their commitment to trans rights at the outset, and emphasise that their issue is with Stonewall and its policies, which they say compromise academic freedom and freedom of expression. What I will say on that matter is that academic freedom and freedom of expression are absolutely central to our values, and that all members of the University are free to express their views within the law. This means there are bound to be disagreements, and our duty as an institution is to facilitate courteous, even if robust, discussion between different groups. On Stonewall, views on their policies differ dramatically and those can be discussed over the summer period. I do note the important role that Stonewall has played over a number of years in helping us to develop our policies and practice in such a way as to create the supportive, diverse community that we value so highly.

Moving on to less controversial matters, I recently came across a BBC short news video, entitled  Uncovering the Mary Rose’s ethnically diverse crew, reporting on research carried out by Dr Richard Madgwick and Ms Jessica Scorrer of the School of History, Archaeology and Religion, who have worked on human remains recovered from the Mary Rose, one of the largest ships in the navy of Henry VIII. The fuller report that appeared last month gives more detail, plus the reference to the academic article on which the reports are based. My interest is partly personal, because I have always been fascinated by the trove of knowledge that the raising of the wreck in 1982 made available, and when I was an external examiner at the University of Portsmouth in the 1990s took every opportunity to visit the site where the wreck was being preserved (and indeed to visit HMS Victory too). The archaeological resources supplied by the Mary Rose are continuing to yield fascinating findings, and the headlines from Richard and Jessica’s research are that isotope analysis of the bones of eight of the crew members from the 179 individuals whose remains have been recovered (from a complement thought to exceed 400) shows that four of them are likely to have originated from outside Britain and may well have come from Africa and southern Europe. This could show that the Tudor navy may have been far more diverse than previously supposed and is scientific evidence that supplies vital new knowledge to the historical record. From the works of the historian David Olusoga — especially in his book Black and British — and others, we are now aware of a whole aspect of our history that previously had little or no salience, and here is more evidence of the role diverse communities have played in key events and daily life throughout our history as a nation.

With best wishes

Colin Riordan