The ‘Artist’ Speaks: Exclusive Interview with Ian Williamson

EMMA FRANCOMBE interviews unsuccessful DSU Candidate IAN WILLIAMSON as he delivers a ‘parting shot’ to the University

DSU Ian Williamson interviews

The DSU Presidential campaign saw Archie Dallas win with a landslide victory, almost 1900 votes ahead of the second place runner, Ian Williamson. Given that the position is a sabbatical one, The One caught up with Ian to find out what is next for him…

THE ONE: First of all, commiserations from The One: how are you feeling about the election result now?

IW: It wasn’t a great surprise; the extent to which Archie won probably was, but he has got very strong support and he has done a great job as DUCK officer, so…

THE ONE: And you are from the same college?

IW: Yes, so that made it a little more difficult! I couldn’t rely on any votes.

THE ONE: So what does this mean for you Durham career? Does this mean you are leaving Durham?
IW: Yes, I handed in my thesis on Tuesday and I’m leaving tomorrow in fact!

THE ONE: So soon?! How long have you been in Durham?

IW: This is my eighth year in Durham, and so some people might say it is for the best that I’m finally leaving!

THE ONE: Your words after the election – 'Qualis artifex pereo' (what an artist dies in me) – have proved controversial on The One. Do you think it came across 'out of touch'?

IW: Well I realise that everyone who knows me knows that it was a joke, and everybody who doesn’t know me probably won’t understand. But no, Palatinate asked for a comment, and I’m sure the others went for something slushy about wishing “Archie all the best….it was a great race” whereas I was having a discussion with some postgrads at Hild Bede about the best way to sum it up, and someone suggested Nero’s dying words. After a few pints, it seemed like a good idea…

THE ONE: The voting turn-out for the DSU this year was quite low in comparison to other years. Do you think student apathy towards the DSU changed the vote at all?

IW: I don’t know, as I think the more people you have voting, the less informed the decisions are as people make more snap judgments. On a national level, our turnout is actually pretty good which is worrying for other students’ unions but I do think Durham students are relatively apathetic towards the DSU especially compared to what they feel towards their colleges.

THE ONE: Do you think the role of the DSU in Durham is different compared to other SUs because of the collegiate system?

IW: Completely. Most of the failings of the DSU are often because they are trying to be like any other students’ union. They far too often look to what Northumbria do because they are student union of the year according to the NUS. The expectation that people will deal directly with the DSU on most issues is just false and the idea that they are failing because people aren’t engaging with them is ridiculous. Colleges have such strong engagement and if DSU were to connect up with that better, you’d immediately have one of the most engaged student bodies in the country. The DSU needs to realise that it is the colleges here more often.

THE ONE: How do you feel about how the DSU elections are run as a whole? Is there an opportunity for reform there?

IW: Er, yes. They changed the election rules a lot this year to try and improve things, but poor organisation disrupted things to the extent that some candidates didn’t know when they could start and stop campaigning and things were generally quite confusing.

THE ONE: What do you think of the role of publications such as online publications such as The One, or Palatinate? Do they have a place in publicizing the DSU and the election campaign?

IW: I think the greatest value of Durham One is the fact that it is independent. I’m sure you get occasional angry emails from the University Media Office, but unlike Palatinate you aren’t part of the DSU. There was certainly one issue last year – I shan’t comment on what it was, but I’d suggest – oh, I’ll say as I’m leaving… I suggested to Palatinate that they write an article, so they started asking questions and the a senior member of the University administration called up the Chair of the Board of Trustees of the DSU, saying “I don’t think you should be doing this.”

So, well, I can say it now as I’m leaving, but one of the things I would have tried to do as President would have been to try and make Palatinate independent of the DSU so it could be a more challenging voice as it is really being trodden upon far too much. But, back to the question – how could these publications better publicise the elections and the DSU? It all depends on better communication really between the DSU and all outlets. If there had been better communication, things this year would have happened a lot sooner. We did some interviews with The Bubble and got asked a few questions by The One, but it was all incredibly late because of the DSU. The DUS tried to organize separate presidential hustings and contacted the DSU a long time in advance, things were only organised 24 hours before. They just need to get on and do things! You can’t comprehend how badly organised it is…

THE ONE: Do you have any advice for Archie Dallas, then, as he assumes the role of DSU President?

IW: Don’t trust the University officials whilst your back is turned. Infact, don’t trust them at all. Some are sincere, but, frankly, most aren’t. They are very apprehensive to communicate on issues, and will attempt to stall for time, as any time they can delay is more time closer to when you leave. Some issues that could be resolved in five minutes have been put on the back burner as they try to focus on other aspects of supporting the students and others they try to hide for as long as possible.

On so many issues this seems to be the case: there is a story from the JCR Presidents, talking to Chris Higgins (Durham’s Vice-Chancellor), about 38 week lets, and one response was “well what about post-graduates who may want 38 week lets”. Well, you are having a conversation with someone about undergraduate accommodation so what relevance does this comment have?! The Vice-Chancellor is an idiot! I did ask for a document on 38 week lets, and one of my proudest lines was the suggestion that I neglect the Vice-Chancellor’s ability to form his own sense of opinion on a matter.

THE ONE: Finally, on last thing on DSU events. There was a lot of talk across hustings about DSU events, such as Hound. Will it ever be back?

IW: I don’t think it will now, the final nail is in the coffin for events at the DSU. One of my points in my manifesto was bringing it back, but this was more about listening to the student voice and listening to what the students want. Most people I spoke to said “bring Hound back”, and so, given that one of my points on my manifesto was to listen to student opinions more, that’s what needed to be done. I think it could be done, the problems are far more political than anything else: it is nothing to do with the building – Hound sold out for many years, it just needed to compete more with clubs in town.

Talking to some students now, they have no interaction with the DSU whatsoever: no one goes in there. I mean, while in general the DSU can get on with most things it needs to do without holding the affection of the student body, that building would be the only place you could get 1300 students altogether on a night out in Durham, you just don’t have to do it so frequently as before. That way, the DSU would have some presence in student life, so that when it does need the student body to get behind it, it can.

THE ONE: What do you think of the redevelopment plans for the DSU?

IW: I’ve heard they want to spend a lot of money, I’m just sceptical as to how much will get spent. I think it could be very beneficial, especially talking to the international and post-graduate communities. For those who don’t necessarily want to get involved in colleges, the Dunelm House is a space they’d recognise as a place to go and work. I don’t think we could get a shop back, but I think we should find a way to sell student-priced newspapers and magazines as these were the types of thing that people bought. I’m not too sure about food either, as whilst it used to be quite popular, the YUM café is rubbish as well as overpriced!

THE ONE: Well, thank you very much

IW: I’m sure you’ll be able to make a nice controversial article. This is my parting shot to the University. After 8 years of their delaying, misdirection, and general contempt for the student voice, I’m leaving. You’d almost ask why I ever ran, but I honestly believe the student body deserves better than they get at the moment.

THE ONE: Indeed! And if we’ve learnt anything, it’s “Don’t trust anyone whilst your back is turned!”