Sir Steve Smith, the University of Exeter’s Vice-Chancellor was interviewed by XpressionFM’s Heads of News Lottie Rayner and Chloe Shaw on Monday 15 October. Among other topics, he spoke about sexual assault and racism across campus openly in light of recent campus and national events. He also briefly spoke about the Wellbeing centre and the strains the university is under to cope with the increase in referrals.
Regarding sexual assault and harassment on campus the Vice-Chancellor said he has appointed harassment advisors, two of which have direct access to Sir Steve himself. They aim to discuss sensitive matters on behalf of assault and harassment victims and provide support and advice to those individuals. He said the university felt ‘right to be tougher’ on assaults amongst staff members, which he admitted have happened. He continued, referring to these situations as ‘unacceptable’ and an ‘abuse of power’, emphasising the need for them to go through disciplinary procedures.
In response to Shaw and Rayner’s questions on the Wellbeing centre, Sir Steve stated that he’s ‘not sure we could ever do enough’, because students need help at the time they have the issue. He referred to ‘a mammoth rise’ in referrals to the Reed Mews Wellbeing Centre and has put an increased number of resources into the centre to try and cope with the 150% increase in people requesting help. The Vice-Chancellor cited reports of students being turned away from the centre, having been deemed ‘not ill enough’. Sir Steve went on to state that the University has paid for the health service ‘to come to us’ in order to increase the number of students the Wellbeing Centre is able to help.
“I’m not not sure we could ever do enough [about wellbeing]”
Shaw and Rayner’s questions also covered the issue of racism at the university. In the past two years, University of Exeter campuses have played host to several high-profile incidents of racism: a swastika drawn on a door in Birks Grange accommodation; antisemitic and racist slogans written on shirts at White T-Shirt socials; similarly offensive slogans written on jackets at a Penryn mining society social; And, recently, the Bracton Law Society scandal which saw racist and sexist things in a group chat published, leading to expulsions and suspensions for the students involved.
Sir Steve expressed the issues that are faced in preventing these sort of incidents, other than by making people aware of the consequences of the situation. He believes that the colleges need to be doing far more to decolonise the curriculum and acknowledges that the humanities department in particular are working hard to make the syllabus of humanities subject’s representative of different perspectives, which BAME students feel is important to ensure they are not isolated by the curriculum.
“Perhaps if we were situated in a far more diverse area, things would be different”
Sir Steve admitted that there were ‘not enough’ resources and systems in place to combat and prevent racism on campus but believes that the biggest issue he and the rest of the university faces is not knowing what is going on behind closed doors. Continuing on the same topic, the Vice-Chancellor referred to the face that the university is very white and middle class. ‘Perhaps if we were situated in a far more diverse area, things would be different’, Sir Steve said.
The interview with the Vice Chancellor Sir Steve Smith was an insight into the efforts being made to combat issues which are being faced by the university’s students and staff. He publicly opened up on the BLS scandal and the effects it has had on the student body, and attempted to clear up issues with the ‘Digital Check-In’ system. An increase in referrals to the Wellbeing centre have caused a strain on the services provided for students and despite efforts to help every student they can, some are still being rushed through to make way for the next. Finally, further support and monitoring is being offered for students and staff who have been victims of sexual assault but he states that he is limited when people do not report their sexual harassment or assault experiences.
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