Introducing the new President of the Cambridge Union

An insight into his vision for the coming term – upcoming initiatives, and inclusivity

The Cambridge Union is the oldest continuously running debating society in the world, and was set up in 1815 to champion free speech. To get an idea about the direction the union will take this coming Lent term, we spoke to president James Vitali, who will be serving as chair of the union’s standing committee, organising the debate programme and overseeing all events.

Debate chamber – Credits Holly Sheridan

To begin – why joining the union is money well spent

James detailed very convincing reasons why a union lifetime membership will be money well spent, varying according to the interests and passions of each individual. The most obvious, yet arguably most unique, aspect of the union is the access it provides to weekly debates. He spoke about his personal love for “scrutinising arguments” with experts in a particular field. You can also audition to speak alongside (and question) figures such as Wes Streeting (the British Labour party politician who debated last term).

Discussions often carry lingering historical significance as well. James drew attention to the Baldwin vs Buckley: The Great Debate over Race in America, when Baldwin – a renowned civil rights activist – argued that the so-called “American Dream” does occur at the expense of black Americans, winning by a vast majority of 380 votes. The debate remains relevant and well-received over fifty years later.

James adds that the Union offers the chance to attend speakers’ events and, unlike those listening to the streams on YouTube, members can interact with them through questions from the floor. Just in recent years, speakers included Dua Lipa, Theresa May, Rita Ora, Stephen Fry, and Derren Brown. The coming term card sounds just as promising!

Last but not least, James reminded aspiring members that the union is a hub for Cambridge social life, and relevant for anybody who just wants to “have a good time.” The previous footlights cellar has been renovated and transformed into the perfect location to host Jazz after Dark events, including student and local gigs, with discounted tickets for members available on Ticketbridge.

Jazz after dark – Credits Holly Sheridan

So what can we expect from the union this term?

At the risk of disclosing too much information, the coming term appears to be packed with exciting initiatives. The union will be actively embracing its roots as the champion of free debate and respectful disagreement. Open debates – that are not recorded – will be held in the historic upstairs library; a perfect opportunity to practice public speaking before stepping into the debating chamber.

Also unprecedented, at least for the past fifty years, will be the hosting of a student theatre production in week five, and première of an – as yet unnamed – film, with the lead actress available for questions at the end.

Perhaps most significant, though, are the outreach programs implemented by the society. These include collaboration with Forward Assist, a charity supporting women’s veterans who have lost their ability for constructive dialogue, and multiple schools in the Cambridgeshire region. James explained:

“If you want to capture the spirit of what the Union is about, teaching children to debate is the perfect way to go about it.”

A more inclusive union

Lifetime membership ordinarily costs £200, but this year costs have been cut to £185 and £155 for freshers and second years respectively. However, memberships do undoubtedly remain expensive, and we asked James how involvement with the union will be made more inclusive, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

He explained that there are “wonderful initiatives to make the union accessible to people who need it” including expanded bursary memberships which now also apply to graduates. The Silver Street Scholarship launched in Michaelmas will also continue, funding 25 memberships per year for an initial three years, resulting in 55 fully-funded memberships. A three-tiered discount system is also in place in accordance with household income.

James has discarded the concept of a “blacklist” that was shortly pondered last term. Speakers’ access to the union will not be barred, but the rights and beliefs of an empowered membership will be protected and furthered by encouraging people to stand up and argue for their politics and principles – in true debating fashion.  

 Feature Image Credits: Provided by James Vitali

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