You will no doubt be glad to know that the saga of the unfortunate student who was summarily singled-out from over forty of his colleague in the peaceful sit in of the Vice Chancellor’s foyer on 1st March 2010 , has now concluded with success for the student. As you will recall he was summoned by a letter on Thursday to an investigative disciplinary meeting the next afternoon, Friday to account for his behaviour, while he was revising for an exam he had to sit on the same Friday morning.
It is now clear there is no case for the student to answer and that the whole action appears to have been instigated by Prof. Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas, our redoubtable Deputy Vice Chancellor, who then didn’t even turn up to chair the meeting as she was presumably taking tea and cakes at the newly opened Cavendish House. Instead, Rikki left a rather bemused Director of Academic Services (DAS) and a perplexed Head of Department from the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Languages (SSHL) to run the investigative meeting for her.
However, the meeting itself has raised even more serious questions about the behaviour of Senior Management and Rikki in particular, which for many objective observers seems to have gone off the rails completely in what has become a campaign of what students and staff are describing as ‘student-bashing’ to try to intimidate students and indeed the UWSU into toeing senior management’s line or else face sanctions. Read on from our witnesses on the spot.
The venue of the meeting itself was switched on late Thursday evening to Wells St from Regent St as we assume a panicked University suddenly remembered that exams were going on and because they had seen posted up on the Fight the Cuts student blog and facebook site with its several hundred members, a call for a peaceful, but large demonstration outside 309 Regent St in support of the student being investigated. The demonstration of some forty people which included students and staff from Westminster and other Universities assembled outside 309 Regent St and made its way to Wells St. The University had called in large numbers of additional security staff, but after realizing how strong the demonstration was and upon remonstration from the NUS who had sent a senior representative to accompany the student under investigation; they agreed that after half an hour the meeting would become a public one which anyone could attend (although they later changed their mind and wouldn’t allow in students from other HEIs such as King’s, UCL, Sussex, Middlesex and elsewhere who had come to show their support for Westminster students). The DAS and the head from SSHL also agreed to allow the student to be accompanied by a member of Westminster SU, the representative from the NUS and a representative from UCU. The head from SSHL was there it seems because a Head of Department was required by Westminster regulations and thus they had drawn the short straw as the other Heads in SSHL had found excuses and various other ways to get out of the onerous task.
After being kept waiting for rather longer than had originally been suggested, we were allowed to go into the meeting and hear the results (apparently one logistical problem had been where to put all the extra security guards that had been called in to Wells St, but eventually they were piled into the class room alongside us, so they could be kept at close hand if needed). The meeting began by the DAS stating that they hadn’t understood until the investigatory meeting that the occupation was a collective one (we’d suggest they need to start reading Fight The Cuts campaign student and UCU blogs and ignore those from the VC’s office and marketing and development which are probably most charitably described as ‘largely fictional’) and she continued that the day’s events were dictated by the draconian and prescriptive regulations in Westminster’s student disciplinary code. We were all immensely relieved and encouraged to hear that it had been decided that there was no case for the student to answer.
At that point staff and students proceeded to raise a number of questions about the process which the DAS and SSHL head to their credit did their best to answer, though they seemed somewhat embarrassed by the whole situation they had been landed in. Regarding why one student had been singled out for disciplinary action out of some forty or so present at the sit in, it appeared that he was the only one that the University had been able to positively identify despite all the unsuccessful management efforts to try to get Lecturers to identify students. In addition his general articulateness and possession of a megaphone had in management minds suggested that he was obviously ‘a ring-leader’. The positive ID as our readers will recall was carried out on the rally of 17th March at Marylebone by the ‘world’s most expensive security guard’, Prof. Rikki Morgan-Tamosunas who flanked by a few more traditional security guards had seen the student and while trying to block him from attending the rally insisted that he gave her his ID card (see our earlier blog post on this). However, the University how now accepted it seems that the peaceful demonstration and occupation of the VCs foyer was collective and it may even have accepted that singling out a student on such spurious grounds as being in a possession of a megaphone and being articulate was both pernicious and unfair.
Responding to the question of the timing of the meeting with regard to the student having an exam the same day, the DAS seemed to have been instructed to fall on her sword by senior management and claimed apologetically that it was her mistake, as she hadn’t read the students exam timetable on SRSweb correctly and she was in fact trying to get everything cleared up before he took his exams. The staff present were unconvinced by this and felt the timing was directly related to the strike on the 5th May 2009, which was when the letter to the student about the meeting had been sent. She also agreed that documentation would be provided so that the student could make a successful claim to the mitigating circumstances board as his exam and preparation would have been affected by the stress he had been put through.
Students made it quite clear amidst loud applause that they were not going to be intimidated by Senior Management from taking legitimate and peaceful action to defend education in the future and that this was a message that they wanted the DAS and SSHL head to take back to the VC and the Deputy VC. It was the fact that senior management were so disinterested in engaging with what students had to say which had led to the occupation in the first place, an actuality that senior management still did not seem capable of understanding. It remains to be seen of course whether either Prof. Petts or Prof. Morgan-Tamosunas will start engaging with student’s genuine concerns in the future. Several staff then pointed out how the whole way in which the affair had been handled suggested how isolated senior management were from the University as a whole and that they were now so out of touch with our students and the academic staff that they had no idea what students or academics cared about. Indeed, senior management seemed blithely unaware that singling out and harassing one student as they have done in this case would inevitably further inflame relations with Westminster’s student body. It was suggested by students (to more applause from the assembly) that the fact that so many students had turned up to support their colleague despite the fact they should have been revising for exams showed how strongly students felt about this issue.
It was pointed out by a member of staff who was actually there at the court of governors’ meeting that despite what Senior Management claimed, the governors did not in fact feel threatened by the students who had pushed their way into the boardroom, but instead thought it was funny and were laughing and joking about it as they strolled down the fire escape. This story like many had been deliberately remanufactured by senior management into the fable that governors and others had felt threatened by student protestors. Westminster student representatives also took the opportunity to squash another myth put out by senior management, which was that the original occupation had had large numbers of outside agitators involved and that damage had been caused in the VC’s foyer, when in fact the various journalists etc. present who had stayed for a short while to interview Westminster students had left within the first few hours and no damage whatsoever had been caused to the foyer.
One member of staff asked about why the university seemed to be treating peaceful student demonstrators during the sit in as if they were Hamas? Could senior management no longer tell the difference between our students and terrorists? The meeting broke into general laughter and even the DAS and SSHL head couldn’t help smiling at the bon mot. Someone also asked how if the University was as broke as the VC claimed that it could always find money to bring in outside specialist security staff at the drop of a hat? What did such patterns of behaviour say about how the University wished to be perceived by the outside world and how exactly would it help attract students to choose the University? The DAS and SSHL head looked visibly stumped at how to answer these questions. A UCU representative then pointed out that senior management would be very mistaken to believe that bullying and harassment of either our students or staff was going to stop the staff taking democratic, legitimate and peaceful protest or indeed that the strike on the 5th May was the last industrial action to be taken over this dispute: rather it was just the first of many such actions. There was yet more applause at this point.
Finally several members at the meeting pointed out how much damage was being caused to the University’s reputation due to senior management’s behaviour towards our students and this was now becoming so bad that it was directly negating all the good work that academic staff currently undertook in that field. A staff member drew a direct parallel and continuity between the current attempt to single out and intimidate one of the students who had taken part in the sit in with the behaviour of Prof. Rikki Morgan-Tamosumas during her negotiations with the students at that time. As has been extensively blogged by the Westminster students Fight The Cuts organization and corroborated by others, students had said there was a deliberate negotiating policy of trying to limit supplies of water and food and to restrict toilet breaks, as part of an attempt to coerce the students into leaving University premises. This happened after the police had said there was nothing they could do, unless the university went to court obtained an injunction against the students. The DAS and SSHL head looked shocked at this point, but promised they would pass on the request for a full and thorough investigation into senior management’s behaviour during the student sit in along with everything else that was raised by the participants at the meeting.
Finally, the student who had faced senior management’s wrath and survived, gave an impassioned and moving speech about how he had come to University as a mature entrant and how much he felt he owed to the excellent teaching he had received from the staff, who were always supportive towards him and his intellectual development. He also commented about the outstanding quality of the challenging courses that he had taken so far in his degree at Westminster. It was what he felt he owed to the staff and other students in his particular department of the university that had drawn him like so many other students into the struggle to defend education at Westminster and to ensure that future students were able to enjoy that same quality of education in the future. He finished by thanking all the staff and students who had taken time off from busy lives whether revising or marking to come to support him and headed off to celebrate briefly, before getting stuck back in to his exam revision schedule.