The truth behind Union societies: Durham

The Durham Union Society may be known to some as the “Free Speech” society dating back to 1842, fully equipped with regular addresses and debates, hosted by a team of elected committee officials. To others, a club of black-tie wearing traditionalists who use this platform for prestige and personal gain, masking a more disconcerting sub-culture from the University body. In both cases, I was intrigued by the conversation surrounding the Union and upon starting Durham as a Fresher in Michaelmas term 2019, I decided to join the Society as a General Committee member. My time in the Union has been eye-opening in many ways; campaigning on two presidential elections, attending many addresses, and passing many an evening in the Union’s own bar — 24s. Yet, the underlying attributes to the Society Culture remain untouched, unacknowledged and continually prevalent. 

It begs the question of how a student-led society with recurring allegations can continue to function?

Durham’s best exponent for the society is the Epiphany Term President, Sarah Kuszynski, who in her own words confirmed my original intentions for joining the society back in October. Sarah said that she joined the Union four years ago:

I never really thought I would be president as I never saw myself as someone who was particularly out-spoken…People that you know at most of the debates are people who speak loudly and who ask fiery and intense questions but perhaps the people that have the most to give to the society are those who sit there and contemplate about the debate and are a bit shy. They have their own perspectives and I think it is really important that we hear them as well.

…I think we have almost 2 or 3 all female debates which is something that is actually neglected a lot. That is something that I’ve noticed is really important to push as the first female president since Easter 2016….They are on topic, going with the zeitgeist of it but also having some really theoretical underpinnings… as I say the debating chamber is not an echo chamber it is a spread of opinion.

More often than not, prospective members are dissuaded by the membership fee, being £42.00 for annual membership and £65.00 for life. On the theme of access membership, Sarah declared that, “We have approached the University finance office about it, about having instalments to try and make it as inclusive as possible, however given the extra financial burden on University to do this they turned round and said that the management to do this is too much work additionally.

I then put to the President how I couldn’t help but notice at the last debate that the dress code had shifted to black tie, as when Sledge was president [Michaelmas Term] the dress code was a bit more lax, and whether this was a conscious decision?

I know a lot of our officers really enjoy dressing up for debates because it is what both Oxford and Cambridge do, I mean I think the President of Oxford wears white tie or something ridiculous but I’m not going to do that — I’m not going to turn up in a ballgown I’d probably get laughed at. I was curious to see whether the people proposing the motion for the class debate would take issue with the idea of black tie but they didn’t and that shows that it is not always this elitist symbol — they were very happy as they saw it as a sign of respect. I was worried about that perhaps. I see it as a mark of respect to our speakers. People who don’t own black tie I’m never going to impose that on them I think that is totally unfair.

In keeping with this theme I raised to the President how the society has been critiqued over the years for being elite, and what her thoughts were on this? 

Well obviously you mentioned the membership fee, we see that some societies [in Durham] are free. We would go bust in three years if we didn’t have that fee. It’s simple we don’t have the reserves. In terms of the dress code people can see that as a symbol perhaps.

Membership fees and the dress code can be seen as visible factors contributing to the ‘elitist’ feel to the society, however what could be said for the atmosphere which is only visible to those on the ‘inside’? The alleged disputes, the partiality, the politicised toxicity? 

There’s not as much drama as people think, it’s all about the quality of debate which is what we are about. At times I guess…individuals will…as a free speech society people will have disagreements about people that I’m inviting, there are measures we can take to adhere to the university free speech guidelines so we are always accountable to them. We understand that we all have disagreements as we have loads of people with differing political opinions in the Union, that’s wonderful, that’s what we should have.

On the topic of whether the Union is dominated by any particular political party, Sarah asserted that:

We have the president of almost every political party involved in the Union so not particularly. For example we had the co-chair of DULC involved, we did have the president of DULD, and we did have the president of DUCA involved. We have the whole spread of political views involved in the society. That is what helps to shape the society and get a variety of opinions.

A former member of the General Committee, who wished to remain anonymous, expanded on their involvement with the Durham Union and subsequent ban. They recounted that they wanted to join the Union Society as they wanted to do competitive debating, though were convinced to join the ‘hack’ side of the Union. ‘Hack’ meaning the General Committee as elected members who engage in the ‘political side’. The former member claimed that there was little to no political diversity in the General Committee:

All of these groups of people in Gen Com are part of the same organisation called the Conservative Association. They all hang out with each other, they all do weird stuff in black tie together. It is inherently political to the point where people challenge that…it is no secret that DUCA has been consistently baked into the Union Society at the point in which their last AGM was held in the Armistice Room. Past members of DUCA, past members of the Union Society have been previous members of DUCA. Past secretaries, presidents are lifetime members of DUCA. At the point in which you have that level of structural interweaving you can see that there is a tie.

I asked the former member how the Union has changed, if at all, during their time at Durham.

…I’d say Durfess being used is another way in which the union has changed, you have no faith in the internal mechanisms of holding people to account within the society. I personally have tried to use the complaints panel and was specifically told that nothing would come of it by a past president and a member of the panel… People of colour, LGBT+ people could rise to the ranks of being officers of the society, a structural change [that I made] compared to when 3 years ago photos of committee were shown to be all white. Almost all exclusively male.

There is something inherently ridiculous and toxic about inviting amazing speakers from all walks of life and having them tell their story to have them being laughed at by those in black tie who don’t think white privilege is a thing or that women should not have abortion rights. I have seen senior members of the society just sit back and laugh at the speakers and I have seen the reactions of those speakers.

I asked the former member how this jeering made them feel, and whether this led to their departure from the Union.

It makes me feel awful. As some who has had a hand in inviting the speakers, it genuinely does make me feel like why am I doing this? Why am I putting speakers who I admire and respect through this if that is the reception that they are going to get?

I decided to leave the Union Society. There was a member who continued to make awful comments and when students of colour, members of colour called him out for it he gaslit them screaming that they were “liars”. That’s why I decided to leave, partly it wasn’t beneficial to my mental health, considering days before that General Committee some of my friends’ faces [posters] were shoved in a toilet. All the genuine trauma of being consistently made fun of for my sexuality, for my race and then being told that I should shut up about it because there were no real means of accountability — it was a his word against mine type situation. No condemnation, no real sense of solidarity from anyone.

I had access to the Officer email address. I decided to email a majority of the Epiphany term’s speakers. I’d help craft that term as an Officer. Based on the experiences I had seen many of the speakers go through, especially the Speakers that wore hijabs, speakers that were of colour, speakers that were LGBT+, speakers that were female, tell their stories and be laughed at. I felt like I had a moral obligation to tell them and make them aware of what they were getting themselves into.

This was a deeply saddening account of the former member’s personal experiences in General Committee, while the Society was also being condemned as a whole based on this. From what was alluded to, it seemed that the Society was being negatively labelled on behalf of select members that tainted its reputation. It seemed unfair that individuals having this political rivalry could reflect this so negatively. The quality of talks and debates being overshadowed by sects from within, sects spurred by marginal gains at the cost of each other’s wellbeing. 

Is there hope for the Durham Union Society? 

The former member concluded that structurally no change could be made as long as the trustees had a say in the matter. “Supposedly the trustees are a board that doesn’t have the best interests of its membership in mind,” they asserted. 

On balance, the Durham Union is a society which takes its business seriously. With fortnightly meetings, a constitution and an employed member of staff keeping the Chamber at Palace Green ticking over, the Union is not one to take such allegations with a pinch of salt. Well in to the Epiphany Term [at the time of the interview], Kuszynski’s debate and address line up had started with a bang. The Epiphany President also maintained that any such complaints should be brought to the Complaints Panel, an integral part of the Union:

…Complaints used to be brought to the standing committee and the President but obviously if it is just the standing committee and the President it is very involved in the Union. We wanted something which was more independent and slightly distanced from the Union, as impartial as possible as that is something which is important. Oxford and Cambridge both have their complaints panel so we thought it was about time we modernise the Union a bit.

Nonetheless, can the allegations surrounding the Union be justified by its quality of talks and debates? As long as the right to ‘free speech’ is maintained in all respects, only time will tell which direction the Union will go in. 

By Sophie Farmer

Illustration: by Bethan Chinn

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