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Message from the Vice-Chancellor to staff and students - 5th June 2020

Dear Colleagues and Students,

I write this message with a real sense of humility because I want to start by saying something about the horrific death in the US of George Floyd. Because of my own white identity, and despite my revulsion at his killing, it is impossible for me to feel the same pain and sense of injustice that so many of our Black and Minority Ethnic students and colleagues feel.  George Floyd’s death is the latest of terrible and unconscionable killings of African Americans reflecting the increasingly appalling effects of structural racism that go back generations.  There has rightly been an upwelling of protest in the US, the UK and around the world. I hope it goes without saying that this is a time for us to confront racism, to call it out in our communities and to stand up for what is right.  We must stand shoulder to shoulder together and state that racism is wrong and must stop. But saying things like this is less important than listening to the views and concerns of our Black and Minority Ethnic students and colleagues, and then, crucially, acting.

That listening and that acting has to begin in our own university community. Everyone reading this message knows that we have not made the progress that we want. To my personal shame, there have been abhorrent incidents here, and we have not been able, so far, to stop these incidents before they happen. So, to state the obvious, we must do everything in our power to root out all forms of racism and hate crime in our community. But as I have said, I am acutely aware that it is not just our words but our actions that matter and we must be visibly and actively anti-racist: not merely non-racist, but actively anti-racist. Right now I also know that colleagues and students are traumatised by recent events and need support and compassion more than anything else, so I urge you to reach out to our support services and each other.  Please do recognise that your colleagues and your students may be hurting through what is going on and look out for each other. I urge all colleagues and leaders to bring up and talk about issues of racism, this burden should not rest on our black and minority ethnic colleagues. Tackling racism is for all of us.

Looking ahead, we particularly want to work in partnership with our existing staff and student networks and societies in developing the right approach so that we act in unity. In early April, we wrote to the Black and Minority Ethnic Staff, Students and Allies Network and other petition signatories to propose that we set up an Independent Working Group on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Inclusion and Equality, to make recommendations to the Provost; the Vice-Chancellor’s Executive Group lead for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion; and the new Vice-Chancellor. This week we have listened further to our community including on the Black Lives Matter movement and we have had offers of support to work together on the actions, including from the African Caribbean Society. The link below will take you to the approach we set out in April and current actions and we welcome all feedback on our next steps: www.exeter.ac.uk/speakout/networkletter

More broadly, it feels like a time of great change at the moment and with that comes heightened anxiety and risk but also an opportunity to adapt and make positive improvements – albeit amidst significant financial uncertainty. The Covid-19 crisis has accentuated systemic issues and for universities accelerated the need to change the way we work, teach, research and collaborate with partner organisations. I hope that colleagues and students have felt that we have been open and honest about the challenges and choices ahead. You may be interested in the Universities UK publication this week on the principles and considerations emerging from lockdown that will inform our own plans.

For students, our aim is to provide as much face to face teaching and access to our campuses as possible for the start of the autumn term. The top priority will be the safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and wider community and given the current Covid-19 situation it is likely that we will initially need to offer a combination of on-campus and online learning. We continue to make campus adjustments to enable physical distancing where appropriate and ensure we can be flexible so that if we see an increase in Covid-19 cases learning will not be affected. We are making a major investment in digital learning and listening to students and teaching colleagues to make sure we get the experience and support right.

For staff, we are working on a practical, safe and environmentally conscious return to campus. We are taking the opportunity to rethink our approach to our use of buildings, travel and a better balance of work and home life. We want colleagues to have more choice in the way that they work while supporting outstanding teaching and research. Some of these changes will also enable us to make financial savings to reduce the impact of any income losses this year as well as support individual savings and a healthier, more sustainable way of life. I know that many colleagues continue to be concerned about the months ahead but we are committed to working in partnership with trade unions and consult staff and students to make any changes. Our financial position is stronger than many in the sector or region and protecting jobs and increasing employment opportunities is vital for our university and region.

One of the big uncertainties of course remains the intentions of new international students. We expect that some international students will need to join us later in the autumn or at the start of January and we are working hard to provide that flexibility. I am also working at a national level on the practical support government can provide to fund the research base in the UK given the expected drop in international student income. The signs are encouraging from the government but plans still in the early stages.

Universities around the world face extraordinary challenges and opportunities in the years ahead and I am certain that the University of Exeter can thrive in an increasingly competitive higher education sector. We are well placed to enhance our education and learning experience and focus on research that will change the world and people’s lives. We will also play an even bigger role in the region supporting economic growth and working across the education sector to improve accessibility and opportunities for all.

I am so proud of our colleagues and students for the contribution you make to society and our communities across the world. I know for some these are your last few weeks as students at Exeter and no-one could have foreseen the circumstances in which you are graduating. It was however still a pleasure to witness the recent online graduation ceremony of our Medical Imaging students who join our medical students in progressing early to support the NHS frontline. We will ensure that all our graduating students get an opportunity for the proper celebration you deserve and we will continue to support you in your careers to make an exceptional difference in the world.

As the events in America this week have shown there are so many deep-rooted, complex global challenges that require innovative, thoughtful, evidence-based solutions to benefit humanity and our planet. I hope that the education, research, values and connections at Exeter will ensure that whatever your talent or passion you help change lives for the better. And, for all of us, we have to start finding these solutions here in our university community. That requires us to listen, care for each other, and make this a safe and supportive space for every member of our community, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, disability or background.

Take care of yourselves, and each other,

Steve

Professor Sir Steve Smith
Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive