FROM THE EDITORS: Over and above its desire to make St Andrews students laugh, the Bejant Observer recognises the seriousness of current events in the United States and elsewhere. The below article is the first factual journalistic piece filed under the Observer’s News desk. It seeks to explain the controversy over Principal Sally Mapstone’s latest University-wide email. We hope you find it informative.
Students already weary of Principal Sally Mapstone’s fatuous and sparsely-detailed ‘Covid-19 Updates’ were riled by the University’s tasteless and offensive statement on the global unrest over racial discrimination earlier this week.
During the pandemic’s first hectic weeks in Britain, the Vice-Chancellor’s weekly ‘Covid-19 updates’ told us (sometimes with frustrating vagueness) what immediate measures the University was taking, which facilities would close and which remain open, and which University resources we could rely upon as wider society shut down.
But as students have gone home or hunkered down in place and gradually adjusted to life in this Plague Year of 2020, those updates have become a source of amusement and mockery for many. They are filled with odd or tasteless turns of phrase, mention little in the way of concrete plans or proposals, and are riddled with cringe-inducing platitudes.
A few examples: ‘some of the questions you may have we cannot yet answer. But we are thinking about them…’ (14 May); ‘…we are all probably spending much less on coffee and tea, and there appears to be far far less ironing being done…’ (21 May); ‘We must be patient, prudent and ready…’ (22 April).
It’s not just us, either. An online survey posted in late April on the popular student Facebook group ‘st polldrews’ asked the question: ‘What will Sally write in her next email?’ The top answers included:
- ‘unprecedented times’
- ‘self congratulatory sentence about the uni letting us out of our accommodation contracts’
- ‘there’s no news but she’ll keep emailing us anyway’
- ‘self congratulatory paragraph about the scientific research the uni is doing’
Harsh, maybe. But the responses are nevertheless a telling insight into the level of confusion and frustration amongst those who feel that the emails do nothing but underline the lack of real action being taken by the University — or at least its difficulty in communicating that action to its students. The above poll was just one of many which expressed frustration with or poked fun at the weekly email blasts.
New Reading Material
Now it seems that the Vice-Chancellor has added insult to injury with her most recent missive. First, Mapstone made the bizarre decision to address the global protests against racism in the same email as her pandemic update — over a week after George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officers, sparking the unrest.
Secondly, though she highlighted the University’s guilt in the perpetuation of systemic injustices (without naming any specifics), her solutions were decidedly milquetoast: staff will be given a list of books and articles to read which deal with the problem of racial injustice. ‘They may make us feel angry and uncomfortable’, she writes, ‘but worthwhile change rarely happens in comfort.’
What specific change the Vice-Chancellor wishes to see was left unsaid, despite months of activism by BAME students who have been agitating for name-blind admissions, stronger recruitment from disadvantaged communities of colour, and more transparency from the University on matters of demographic concern, such as the number of BAME staff employed by St Andrews (the Bejant Observer counts a laughable five at present).
And while similar universities like Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, Georgetown, and William and Mary have all acknowledged their part in the transatlantic slave trade (Glasgow has even pledged £20 million to further research the subject), St Andrews has kept mum.
‘You can breathe’
The email went on to imply that St Andrews students, by virtue of attending a top-tier university, are privileged. Those who struggle with funding, disabilities, or issues of racial discrimination will be gladdened by that news.
Capping off this paragraph was a particularly tone-deaf phrase: ‘For the most part, you can breathe’ — an allusion to Mr Floyd’s final words (‘I can’t breathe’) as he was being choked to death by four police officers just under two weeks ago. The slogan ‘I can breathe’ has been adopted by right-wing trolls who seek to mock Mr Floyd and the worldwide protests his killing has sparked.
One might be inclined to take the charitable course and assume she only meant to note the fact that students of St Andrews are, for the most part, white and wealthy (itself an admission of failure, some might say) — were it not for the University’s persistent inaction and caginess on racial issues, even after a visiting Harvard PhD student brought the issue into widespread debate last year. In short, on the issue of race, the most recent email was yet another example of cloying rhetoric masking an inability or lack of desire to take concrete action.
Compare this with Student Association President Jamie Rodney’s email on the subject: a brief and forceful condemnation of racism and then an exhaustive list of educational resources and causes to which we should donate. From an elected student representative, this is the most one should expect (it helped that the email was short, helpful, and free of patronising attitudes). From a powerful and well-paid University official with the ability to make policy changes, one expects a great deal more.
If one good thing can be said to come out of the weekly Outlook fiasco, it’s the gold mine of comedic material, much of which has brightened up the University’s sometimes-dreary student Facebook groups like st polldrews. ‘What do you think was the worst part of Sally Mapstone’s latest email?’ one recent poll has asked. We think you might be able to answer that one on your own.