The Judge RANTS!
An Open Letter...(Now With Reply)
(For the story of Liam Stacey, see here and here. For the press statement referred to in my letter, see here).
To: Professor Richard Davies
Dear Professor Davies
Mr Liam Stacey
I write in connection with the recently-concluded disciplinary process against the above-named student. I am aware that such matters are customarily dealt with confidentially, but as the University has taken the unusual step of making its decision public, I hope I may be permitted to comment upon it.
I acknowledge the likelihood that neither you nor your office was directly involved in the proceedings referred to; however by virtue of your position you are, as it were, the public face of your institution and so - especially bearing in mind the dearth of contact addresses (either e-mail or conventional post) on your University's website - must be considered the most appropriate recipient of communications on matters which have import not only for Swansea University but for society beyond its campus. I hope that - should you think it appropriate - you will forward this letter on to those who have been more directly involved in Mr Stacey's case.
Might I first state that although I am not an alumnus of your University, I am a graduate of many years' standing of another College which shared a governing body with yours in a previous incarnation.
I should also like to emphasise that in all of what follows - unless stated explicitly otherwise - my use of the second-person pronoun is not to be taken as referring to you specifically as an individual or specifically to your own office; it is to be considered a reference to the University administration, particularly that part of it which was responsible for the disciplinary proceedings against Mr Stacey.
I hold no particular brief for Mr Stacey, knowing only that about him which has been widely available in the media since late March of this year. I do not for one moment condone his conduct, which was boorish and offensive in the extreme, and it was correct that he should be have been brought to account for his behaviour and punished in accordance with the law on this matter as it stands.
However I, along with rather more people than might generally be imagined, believe that the sentence passed upon him by District Judge Charles on 27 March 2012 was disproportionate to the harm Mr Stacey caused; a term of imprisonment (however brief) for a drunken rant (however rebarbative) was inappropriate. It was troubling, too, to see how readily his appeal was dismissed a few days later.
In the light of this, the statement published on your website on 22 May 2012 was disappointing and troubling. Disappointing in that it seems to contain a response little more measured than that of the courts; troubling in that it seems to hold the image of the University in higher regard than the principles of justice and humane compassion which we should expect to find in an institution of higher learning in a supposedly liberal society.
I fully recognise that the University, like any other such institution, has the right to take proportionate measures in defence of its interests. It is that word 'proportionate', however, which seems to be missing in your deliberations on this occasion.
Although your statement of 22 May mentions that the University is 'mindful' of the consequences which Mr Stacey has already had to face as a result of his arrest and conviction, that 'mindfulness' does not seem to have gone any great distance to informing your decision on the matter, at least as far as ensuring a measured response is concerned.
I would ask you to consider the following:
- Mr Stacey has - rightly or wrongly - been labelled before the world as a racist bigot, a charge which is in today's society perhaps second only to being denounced as a pervert in its far-reaching effects on the person thus described. He was subjected to a form of 'trial-by-media', which almost certainly informed the actions of the District Judge who sentenced him and the High Court judge who rejected his appeal. He has also, I believe, been subjected to threats of violence, as has his family.
- He has now been encumbered with a criminal record. This will be an enormous handicap to him in gaining employment in the future, as he will have to declare the conviction on all employment applications for at least the next ten years, and in some circumstances well beyond that time. The comparatively minor nature of his crime will not be what prospective employers will see on his application forms; they will merely see that he was convicted of a 'racially-aggravated offence' and will judge him and his application primarily or solely on that statement of bald fact.
- I am given to understand that Mr Stacey's chosen career was to be in forensic science. As most of the opportunities for that work in the United Kingdom are either as a direct employee of law enforcement agencies or as en employee of a company or organisation contracted to them, a criminal record will be an almost insurmountable obstacle even to his entry into that field, let alone progression within it.
- The fact that he has served a prison sentence will be a serious hindrance to him irrespective of the career path he may choose. It is estimated that some sixty per cent of all employers in the UK will not, under any circumstances, employ former prisoners; when one considers that that sixty per cent is likely to contain some large companies and organisations, the proportion of vacancies from which Mr Stacey is likely to be permanently excluded may well be in excess of seventy per cent.
- The original suspension from your University has already set back his graduation by at least a year, with all that that may imply for his employment propsects in a highly-competitive jobs market.
In the light of this, the sanctions you have imposed on Mr Stacey appear, to my eyes at least, to take little account of any of the above, and indeed to perpetuate and exacerbate his problems. For although they may give the appearance of some degree of magnanimity, they are likely in practical terms to preclude the likelihood of his being able to gain a degree at all.
Again, I ask you to consider:
- Mr Stacey is to be permanently excluded from your campus. This will naturally include all lecture-rooms, laboratories and libraries. How, given such an exclusion, is Mr Stacey to have access to the necessary resources to complete his studies? University libraries in particular contain, or have access to, works and information which are to be found in few other places, even in the internet age. How could he consult any such sources under the conditions you have prescribed? Moreover, in the run-up to final examinations in any academic discipline, ready access to advice from members of the academic staff may be vital. How is Mr Stacey to achieve this, especially given that his home address is at some distance from the University itself?
- He is to be permitted to sit his finals next year (should he be in any position to do so), but only as an external candidate at some unspecified 'other venue'. Will Mr Stacey be expected to find that 'other venue' at his own time and expense? Given that he will no longer formally be a student, he would have to try to find employment in the meantime (with all the attendant difficulties I described earlier), and so may not have the time, the opportunity or the money to be able to make such arrangements, or indeed to be able to study adequately for his finals at all.
- He will be allowed (should he somehow overcome all of the above obstacles) to graduate, but will not be allowed to attend the degree-awarding ceremony.
Far from being the magnanimous and measured response which your press statement of 22 May seeks to portray it as being, the decision which has been reached at the end of your deliberations merely extends the difficulties which Mr Stacey will face. It creates virtually all the effects of expulsion in toto without showing the courage to actually take that step. The last sanction - that of having to graduate in absentia - seems particularly mean-sprited, but the whole set of punishments you have given this foolish young man seems designed to - if you'll forgive the demotic - stick the boot in. He has surely been punished enough by the courts and by the attendant publicity surrounding his case, and by the consequences of that alone; neither the University nor society would gain anything worthwhile from his failure to graduate.
Please note that I am not saying that the University should not have sought sanction against Liam Stacey; his behaviour was odious, and is only slightly to be explained by his state of inebriation at the time (although I must say that I know of far more egregious behaviour from members of college sports teams going largely unpunished down the years). However, to be in keeping with what one would hope to be the ethos of an institution of education in an open society, any such punishment should be proportionate, just and humane. If I may suggest for one moment what the University's response should have been, it would have been on the following lines:
- That his suspension be continued to the end of the 2011-12 academic year, but that Mr Stacey be allowed to return to University for 2012-13 under the following conditions:
- that he should not be permitted to reside on campus or in any property owned by the University,
- that he should be permitted full access to all the academic facilities of the campus, but expressly excluded from all social or sports venues and from any social or sporting events organised by the University or its Students' Union,
- that he be given the sternest possible public and written warning as to his future conduct, and
- that he be permitted to attend his graduation ceremony (should he choose to), but only after making a clear and unambiguous public statement deploring racism.
All of the foregoing would, I assert, have more than adequately made the point about Mr Stacey's conduct without further imperilling his future attainment; and it would have been in keeping with the ethics of a just response. It would also have prevented your University from appearing - as I'm afraid it now does - to be using the quite proper disgust at Mr Stacey's conduct to appear to be 'firm' and 'decisive', but instead seeming merely to be self-righteous and vindictive. In short, you seem to have been rather more insistent than I should wish to see upon kicking a man when he's down. Mr Stacey behaved very badly; but there should be a limit to how much punishment should be given to anyone. I believe that you have exceeded that limit, and perhaps from motives which have more to do with public image than justice. Racism is irredeemably nasty, and should be countered wherever it appears, but if we lose sight of fundamental principles in order to appear to be tough on the issue, we run the real risk of appearing to be more scared of the accusation of being 'soft' than of maintaining a sense of proportion.
Please let it be borne in mind that - however repugnant his behaviour on the occasion in question - Mr Stacey didn't kill anyone, didn't physically injure anyone and didn't even cause damage to property. The punishments he has already incurred - and which will accrue to him in the future as a result - are more than enough to make the point; for you to go still further is regrettable. The fuss over his actions will fade; were he to be permitted to return fully in 2012-13, most of the students he had previously worked with would have graduated, and his social life would likely be severely restricted in any case, if only by a sense of shame or of self-preservation.
At the end of this, Professor, I am under no illusions that my comments in this letter will change anything, at least in relation to Mr Stacey's case.
(I can only assume, incidentally, given that he gave his consent for the statement of 22 May to be published that - if your disciplinary processes have an appeal mechanism, which I hope they do - he has decided not to avail himself of it. I believe this to be unfortunate, but that would be his choice).
However, your decisions in relation to this matter have a significance far beyond your campus. In the same way that hard cases make for bad law, it is when the principles of just and fair treatment come to be applied to people who are - for whatever reason - held in public odium that we see how deep our commitment to those principles actually is. I fear that in this case, Swansea University has fallen below the standards I believe it right to expect from so important an instrument of a civilised society, and its decision may not ultimately reflect your institution in the way you might have intended.
I am grateful for your time and patience, and would wish to point out that the text of this letter will be published on my website at http://www.thejudge.me.uk within the next day or so. Should you reply, or another member of your staff do so either on your behalf or on their own account, I hope you or they would be gracious enough to permit me to post it as an addendum to the letter. I undertake to publish any such response verbatim and without further comment.
(I'll let you know what - if anything - transpires from this).
Update (31/05/12): Reply from the Vice-Chancellor of Swansea University:
Dear Mr Stapley
Thank you for your letter about the outcome of a recent disciplinary case.
I read the points you make with genuine interest but, because they refer to a specific student, it would not be appropriate for me to respond in detail nor to elaborate on the University's press statement (which, as you note, was released with the agreement of the student).
Please be assured, however, that the University has established disciplinary procedures which are designed to be fair and which are followed assiduously in every case. Within these procedures, I believe judgements on sanctions are tempered by compassion.
Professor Richard B Davies