Simple people can make simple gestures that have massive effects

Today is a good day.  Today the University of Canterbury’s Engineering Society and the UCSA President, Sarah Platt, delivered public apologies and commitments to make changes that do not encourage offensiveness, divisiveness and bigotry.  Beyond this, the University of Canterbury’s Vice Chancellor, Rod Carr, also offered an important statement.  In particular, he says:

“…as a university community we have not yet fully developed the sensitivity and empathy which are the hallmarks of the open, inclusive, responsive, diverse campus we aspire to be, and as Vice-Chancellor for the last five years, I apologise for those shortcomings and the hurt felt by a number of our staff and students as a consequence.”

What is missing from the statements is a strong moral condemnation of the behaviour and, discussions of how to make things right for those affected.  However, in lieu of this, and as cheesy as it sounds, I hope this is a time for fighting to stop and healing to begin.  Some of the right words have been said and, as an eternal optimist, I am hopeful that all the right action will follow.

This isn’t the end of what will be an ongoing programme to ensure all students feel included and their voices heard.  There will always be idiots out there who think it’s funny/cool/popular to purposefully hurt others. Indeed, I have a PhD student starting soon who is looking specifically at online Trolling behaviour.  We may never completely be free from this, but as long as it is not encouraged or tolerated from our student bodies and leaders then we can all hope for an improvement on campus and beyond.

This, in my mind, is a victory for me and the hundreds who have voiced their support for what was a simple gesture.  This doesn’t mean it has been plain sailing.  Many people have been hurt in the aftermath.  My friends have been worried for me – I’ve received some ‘lovely’ messages – people have been focusing on me rather than celebrating Alex Tan (University-wide Lecturer of the Year) or all the other award winners on the night – I have taken up people’s time and, more than anything, I have taken up people’s energy.  None of which was intended and I apologise for this.  I am, however, still glad that I took a stand because, as today shows, simple people can make simple gestures that have massive effects.

Whoever you are; however you see yourself; whatever you believe in; whomever you love; whatever your ability, you have the right to dignity, love and acceptance.  It’ll take time, but we are well on the way.

Students: Focus on your studies – it’s time to kick ass in your exams.

ENSOC Administrators and Members: Well done for taking a stand – I never intended to implicate all of you in the actions and mistakes of a few.  I apologise if that’s how it was received and I’ll do my best not to make the same mistake again.

UCSA and Sarah Platt in particular: You have shown courage in face of a situation that you were unlikely ever expecting.  Mistakes were made, but by owning up to them and committing to represent everyone you have shown mana beyond your years.

Never be afraid to stand for what you truly believe is right.  If you’re unsure, do as I did and run it past a few people smarter than you are.  Have them critique you.  Have them argue with you and, if after all that, you still feel strongly about it, then stand up and have your voice heard.

Much love

Ekant

I want to re-iterate, again, that despite receiving a lot of love after returning my award I was doing so because it was what I felt was right – I was not representing any club or any society or voicing others’ opinions.  No one approached me prior to returning my award. But, I should give a shoutout to those in FEMSOC who started the conversation.  You took the flak that allowed me to speak up.  This was never meant to be an ENSOC vs FEMSOC issue – I hope you are all encouraged by the result.

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Would I ever take my award back?

Well…my little gesture seems to have blown up more than I intended or expected.  I’ve been a little busy the last couple of days, but it has been for the right reasons.  Yesterday, I did a live chat on Stuff.co.nz.  Afterwards, a good friend of mine from Canada emailed me to say he was watching it with interest. One question he wanted to ask, but didn’t, was ‘Under what circumstances would I consider re-accepting my award?’.  I’m glad he didn’t ask it because it is not something I had considered – I have returned my award and I don’t wish to have it back; however, in the spirit of all learning together, it would be wrong of me to not consider what would need to change in order for me to consider that the issue had been taken seriously.

An apology

I don’t mean ‘I’m sorry you’re offended’ or some lip service to placate the masses.  A sincere, heartfelt apology and a promise that everything possible will be done to ensure this sort of divisive behaviour is never encouraged again.  If the ENSOC Administrators and the organisers of the RoUndie 500 had done this from the start, there would be no issues.

A sustainable change in behaviour

If you’ve taken any of my classes on Social Marketing you will know that changing attitudes or educating people is meaningless unless we see active and substantive voluntary changes to long-term behaviour.  I don’t want a forced change.  I don’t want behaviour that appears to have changed, but will be back in a few months.  I want to see an active and purposeful change in behaviour now and have it sustained for the long-term.  This may mean a culture shift in certain student bodies – let’s do this. I’m happy to help.

A culture of inclusiveness, not tolerance

I was quite annoyed at the statement from the UCSA that we need to have a tolerant campus.  I don’t really feel women and minority groups feel they should be ‘tolerated’. What is it we do that annoys you so much that you feel you need to put up with us? Get rid of the word from all your documentation and work towards being inclusive rather than putting up with us.

An acceptance that Diversity Week won’t fix things

I have my issues with ‘Diversity Week’.  Although it seems well meaning, the idea that we have a week to focus on diversity issues simply highlights how little Diversity issues are considered the other 51 weeks.  If I had my way, we wouldn’t have a ‘diversity week’ – we’d have an inclusive society and it wouldn’t be paraded during a single week in March, but just part of everyday life – all year round.  I get the feeling that Diversity Week will be like the British Museum – a display of post-colonial ‘kindness’ to show how wonderful the empire is at drawing the nations together.  Don’t treat people of different ages, genders, abilities, races, sexual preferences etc as treasures to display so everyone can see how well you’ve done.  It’s like teaching the single class on ethics in a student’s first year and saying ‘yup, that’ll do’ – ethics and morality should be ingrained into every aspect of every course if it’s really to be treated seriously.  Same with inclusiveness.

A focus on academics, not side shows

This has consumed far too much of everyone’s time, especially when we are so close to exams.  Students are here to study and let’s get back to doing that.  Don’t let this consume you any more.  UCSA President, Sarah Platt, and I had a very quick chat yesterday – she first returned the money I had given her saying it was non-negotiable.  Secondly, she wanted to assure me that this is not the end of the discussion.  More will be done.  I am taking her word on this matter and so should everyone else.

On Monday there will be an International Forum with the Vice Chancellor and Sarah Platt.  They’ve invited me along to the event.  I won’t be there to make any grandiose speeches or call for further action.  I’ll be there to listen and ensure that this is not swept under the carpet.

So, if you feel you have been ignored on the topic, you have a voice – I am no leader or shining idol – just a person doing what he felt was right – and, it seems, many agree with me.  Get back to work.

Quick point of clarification that many (mainly commenting in the press) have misconstrued

I want to repeat at this point that I am not upset or offended by racist and sexist behaviour.  I’m a big boy and I’m above that.  What I’m upset and offended at is that a small group of students seek to encourage racist and sexist behaviour.  The fact that the RoUndie 500 organisers specifically asked for ‘the more inappropriate the better’ costumes is the issue here.  There will always be idiots out there, but we don’t need to encourage them.  There is no systemic hatred at Canterbury any more than anywhere else, but the fact that it’s glorified by the ENSOC administration is, to me, disgusting and needs to be addressed.

The actions taken by the few do not represent ENSOC members as a whole, engineers as a student body, the University of Canterbury and certainly not New Zealand as a nation.  Some have asked me what they should do if they disagree with these people’s stance – distance yourself – separate yourself as much as possible from them.  Do not quit your engineering studies, don’t move to another institution (there’s no guarantees it’ll be any better, trust me!); just don’t be seen to be associating with people that uphold and glorify bigoted behaviour.  From a simple marketing perspective (after all, that’s what I should be talking about), having your brand (ie, yourself) associated with a group that has not apologised for their actions and made no promises to change their behaviour is not going to help you in the long-run.  Distance yourself.

Why I returned my 2014 Lecturer of the Year (College of Business and Law) award

Returning my Award

Returning my Award

It is with deep regret that this morning I returned my Lecturer of the Year award for the College of Business and Law 2014. Before I tell you why I gave back this honour I want to assure you that these are my words and my words alone. I am writing this in my capacity as an academic who has the responsibility to be the critic and conscience of society. Unfortunately, the society in question is also where I work.

Now, to my reasons for returning my award. The University of Canterbury is a wonderful organisation and I have enjoyed my time here more than any other appointment I have had. I am supported in my teaching and research as well as have great friends here. However, there is an underbelly of hate that raises its head from time to time. My earliest experience of this came in my first semester of teaching at UoC when I was reading the anonymous feedback from students. In the section where it asked “what should be changed to improve the course” one student wrote “his ethnicity”. I’ve been brown all my life, so I’m used to racism. Whether it’s the ignorant throwaway comment or the overtly aggressive act, I’ve seen it and experienced it and I know one day my daughters will see it and experience it. This is why I’m taking a stand. Because I don’t want my girls to live in a world where hate exists and I know I’ve done nothing to try and stop it.

A few weeks ago the Engineering Society held the RoUndie 500. Participants of the event were encouraged to decorate their cars and come in costumes and that the more inappropriate these were, the better. This led to a series of costumes that were undeniably racist and sexist.

My race is not inappropriate. The gender of my daughters is equally not inappropriate. But for people to jump on these old chestnuts in order to cause offence just continues to highlight this ugly underbelly. This is offensive and inappropriate.

The University of Canterbury, to its credit, has taken the complaints to heart and come up with some swift actions. I am told that the Uni’s representative on the day censored the most offensive content before participants left campus. I’m glad this was done. But it does not address the fact that the organisers purposefully wanted to cause offence and be inappropriate.

What was missing from the final report was any apology from the organisers or participants or promise to not behave in this manner again. I will not deny that I’ve offended people in the past. I am often told I’m am the least PC lecturer students have had; however, I do not purposefully go out to offend and hurt people. If I do, I sincerely apologise and I change my behaviour to ensure I do not hurt someone again.

I am not confident that the UCSA’s response will ensure that the behaviour is not repeated. As a result, I have no proof that the UCSA has taken the matter seriously. With no apology and no guarantee of ensuring similar behaviour does not occur again I believe that racist and sexist behaviour will continue.  Indeed, this is not the first time that the ENSOC has acted in an overtly racist manner and despite the UCSA’s actions after that matter (the use of blackface to promote a cafe) nothing has changed. This does not make for a safe and inclusive workplace for me.

It is for these reasons I cannot be associated with the organisation that gave me the award. If the UCSA is unwilling to take a strong stance against racist and sexist behaviour by students then I cannot be seen to benefit from them. As such, I returned my award along with $50 to cover the cost of the prizes I received. If you need more money to cover the costs, please let me know and I’ll give you more. I don’t want you to be out of pocket for my decision.

Some will tell me to harden up and learn to take a joke. Nothing seems that funny when you’re the target of divisiveness and hatred.  It’s like the bully telling the victim “we were just having a laugh! It was all fun!”

Some will say that I don’t understand satire (a common argument used against those offended by the group’s actions). Satire can offend, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to ridicule and critique – being inappropriate and offensive is not, in my mind, being satirical.

Some will say that because I didn’t see it, then it doesn’t affect me. I didn’t see Malaysian Airline’s disasters, but my heart still breaks for those involved – to see images of the victims mocked by ENSOC is, in my mind, bad taste. I don’t have to physically see something to be affected by it – it’s simple empathy and decency.

I will lose favour with many for my actions – I know that. I may even be damaging my career. I may never win another teaching award. All of this is worth it to take a stand. As I said at the start of this piece, I can’t look at my daughters knowing I stood by and did nothing.

I want to thank all the students that voted for me for this year’s award. I hope my actions are not taken as a disrespect to the generosity you have shown me. If you voted for me and feel let down or betrayed, please do get in touch and I’ll happily sit with you and explain my actions in person.

Much love

Ekant

I want to assure people that I am not represented by any society on campus nor have I been contacted by any member of any society.