Exeposé speaks to Professor Lisa Roberts, Vice Chancellor, about racism, the DebSoc incident and blended learning
Starting a new role in charge of a university can never be easy, and that’s only been made harder for Professor Lisa Roberts with the pandemic causing a myriad of logistical problems. Beyond this, there has also been the reports of illegal student gatherings, as well as the freedom of speech debate coming back into the limelight thanks to last week’s Debating Society incident.
Professor Roberts told us how she comes from a former mining village in Derbyshire, with parents who both had to leave school early to work and support their family. “I am acutely aware of the real transformative power of a university education” she tells us, having previously been Executive Dean of Health & Medical Science at Surrey, and Deputy Vice Chancellor, Research and Innovation at Leeds.
Taking place over Microsoft Teams like so much of this academic year, we questioned the new woman in charge about her plans for Exeter University.
This interview has been shortened and edited for clarity.
É: Has your background in Virology come in particular use during the pandemic – have you been involved in the new plans for Exeter to deal with this? What can we expect to be different?
The plans that have been developed at Exeter are really extensive and really well planned – the beauty of them is really that academic colleagues, professional services and students have all come together.
I’m more a biochemistry virologist than an epidemiologist, but at least I understand a lot of the science behind this. What’s given me confidence about our plans is that it’s been developed with public health experts in the community and across the university with staff and students. Quite clearly I’ve looked through the plans we have and I think they’re really strong.
I’m more a biochemistry virologist than an epidemiologist, but at least I understand a lot of the science behind thisProfessor Lisa Roberts
É: When your predecessor retired, he said in an interview that his biggest regret was his failure to tackle racism. Over the last four years, eight incidents of racism and bigotry have taken place in relation to the University. What plans do you have to make Exeter a more inclusive and safe environment?
I think first of all, Sir Steve was right – tackling racism is for all of us. I think the University’s messages throughout have encouraged everyone to listen to these issues and speak out and hold those conversations, which are quite tough conversations to have. But also come forward with the willingness to change, and every single individual in the University has the responsibility to demonstrate that we’re anti-racist.
I think there are several things going on already which I think are fabulous. We have the Provost Commission which is leading a lot of work to tackle racism. And I know they’re working also with the Unlearn Collective (UC) who are coming forward with issues but also ideas for what we need to do as a university. I know that dialogue between staff and students is really key to this.
I know UC as well are working with the Provost Commission and the Education Incubator around some particular projects that we’re putting funding into, with really good ideas as to how to tackle this.
You only have to look at the numbers — the attainment gap and things like that; the number of reports of incidents; whether they’re unseen or very much in the public eye. I think for me it’s important to keep prioritising this as an issue that the whole University needs to come together to tackle. And the more ideas that can come from conversations with staff and students and particular initiatives that we can really see change, and make change quickly, the better. It will be absolutely at the heart of our new strategy.
É: The decision to halt in-person Guild activities came from the University. Yet the University has been holding screenings on campus, it seems. Why was the University able to hold in-person events on campus when Guild societies were not?
I’m not aware of the detail – I think what we’ve been trying to do is support the Guild with holding society events under the new rules and the new laws. What we’ve managed to do with the screenings, for instance, is make sure we have a COVID-safe environment which absolutely ensures that people are socially distanced and in groups of no more than six. So we’re now working very closely with the Guild to try and work through with them innovative ways we can hold something for societies, but within the law of the constraints we have to work in.
We’ve tried to make sure that the messages get out there. This is a community approach that we need to take, and to make sure that all our community members both staff and students are aware of the government laws and the guidelines. All I can really plead with students and staff and whoever it is, is that we try and stick to those guidelines. The more we can follow them, the more we can contain the virus and allow things like face to face teaching to continue on the campus.
É: Project Enhance looked to offer students podcasts, documentaries & other online resources not provided by teachers as part of “blended learning” Do you think this provides students with the same quality of teaching as before?
I think that the plans for teaching and learning that everyone’s put together this year are really based on trying to get the very best quality, flexibility, and resilience within our programs. So whatever the year throws at us we can respond to that. Quite clearly, face-to-face teaching has many benefits as I’m sure you’re aware, but, I think that the plans that have been put together by the academic staff working with the student community for this blended approach are really providing a high quality experience. The more we can use different materials to enhance that and enhance the learning experience, the better.
So, quite clearly, our teachers and our academics are fantastic and you want to learn from them, and they want to teach you and educate you. But if there are external materials that can enhance that, I think it’s better actually.
I’ve commissioned a full review into [the DebSoc incident] to work out what happened that led to the inviting, uninviting, and inviting againProfessor Lisa Roberts
É: After last week’s Debating Society fiasco, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union said “this is exactly how university vice-chancellors should respond” — this is a man who says he is in favour of “progressive eugenics” — is this the sort of person the university should be taking their advice from?
I don’t think we were taking advice from Toby Young, actually. The thing to point out is that the university, at the end of the day, is committed to the protection of freedom of speech and we also have a duty of care to our staff and students and those two things are both in play here. Obviously, we’re disappointed by what happened around the event last week – I wasn’t aware of their decision to invite Caroline Farrow and then to rescind that invitation.
We don’t in any way condone her thoughts and her views on LGBT views — they’re really fundamentally at odds with our values and commitment to inclusivity and diversity. But in terms of what happened I’ve commissioned a full review into this to work out what happened that led to the inviting, uninviting, and inviting again. I think until I’ve seen exactly what’s in that i can’t comment any further. But one thing I’ve also asked to be part of that review is some recommendations about how to support the wellbeing and training of students that are involved in society activities as well.