Solidarity, not sucking up: Stand up for the Common Room!

Campus is undergoing something of a renewal recently - two examples being the widely-despised University Club and the plan to build a LEGO-esque Centre for Creative Design - and the removal of the UCD Common Room in the Newman Building has fallen below the radar. Conspicuous banners recently placed on the Newman façade may change this, but apart from student media reporting and a statement by the Students’ Union, students haven’t really engaged with the issue. This is a shame - we should rally behind the staff and their desire to keep the Common Room for two reasons: staff and students alike must resist the erosion of their spaces and should stand by each other, and we must fight against dismissive rhetoric employed by the University.

Building solidarity

For those who have not followed the story so far, here’s a potted history: the Common Room, which takes up three classrooms’ worth of space in the Newman Building, is being closed in order to provide more teaching space, with space being provided for some of its functions e.g. a space for faculty to drink and socialise, in the new University Club. However, this new venue is under the management, not of the staff, but of a team appointed by the University with advisory input from the Common Room Committee.

This may on its face seem reasonable, but there are hidden complexities: as reported previously by the University Observer, teaching space is not lacking, and the redevelopment of Newman is actually removing teaching space, contrary to what the University says. The real problem here, however, is that the independence of the Common Room would be eliminated under the new regime: at present, the Common Room is a private members’ club independent of the University, managed by an elected Committee that enforces the club’s rules. Staff also fear that the lack of independence may result in higher membership fees - these are reasonable concerns, and the money issue in particular is one to which students can relate.

The Common Room is a place for staff to relax and socialise, to hosts talks, guest speakers and social events like wine tasting, charity quizzes and an annual Christmas Party. Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because you recently went to a talk organised by SciFi and LitSoc, or socialised with the L&H. The Common Room Committee organises the same sort of events run by student societies. Students would react strongly against further intrusion into our spaces by the UCD authorities, so why should we not do the same for staff?

The answer lies in the unfortunate lack of staff-student solidarity in UCD, or more accurately, the perception that our concerns are not the same and that student concerns are irrelevant to staff and vice versa. In January in the UK, the University and College Union (UCU) organised a series of strikes by academic staff in protest against changes to the staff government pension scheme, in opposition to governing bodies. This was supported both by individual students on the picket lines and by the National Union of Students, the UK equivalent to USI - such solidarity is not to be seen over here. The Common Room fight is a smaller one, but it is still important that we stand up for staff: if the UCD authorities try to further impinge on student spaces, we would want the staff at our backs, and this is a crucial opportunity to build those links.

A matter of principle

Additionally, the dismissive and insulting rhetoric that President Andrew Deeks has used in dealing with the Common Room Committee and their boycott of the University Club deserves to be condemned by students. Deeks has employed uncompromising and absolutist rhetoric in stating that he will only engage with the Committee’s concerns “once they realise that this is absolutely inevitable and there’s no chance that this decision is going to be reversed”, despite the modesty of the Committee’s demands.

Furthermore, the condescending tone with which President Deeks has brushed away legitimate staff concerns about their informal social space is something with which most students - often dismissed as frivolous and whiny millennials - can identify. His remarks, from a previous University Observer article, are worth quoting in full:

“If they want to have a drink there are facilities on campus for that. It’s a relatively short period of time and, as I said if the students can survive for almost two years without a bar, then I think our academics should be able to survive three months.”

This is extremely patronising rhetoric that completely ignores the many other concerns that academic staff have about the removal of the Common Room. Staff also generally don’t want to go for a drink in the Clubhouse for the same reason that we don’t head down to Wezz for a bop after exams, and that’s perfectly reasonable. These remarks also subtly pit students against staff by painting the staff as throwing a tantrum over a few pints, while the hardy students soldier on. We are used to being patronised in this manner by media outlets and politicians: we of all people should empathise with how the staff are being treated.

A final word

Given the President’s refusal to budge, and the fact that the Common Room will close its doors for good on the 21st December, it does not seem as though there is much students can do to help at this point in time. But even if the Common Room truly is doomed, we students should still make our voices heard as a matter of principle. It could just as easily be the Seomra Caidreamh, the VO office or An Cuas that the UCD authorities come for next in redeveloping the campus. In defending the Common Room, we are defending our own spaces and building solidarity between students and staff for the next occasion. We must stand up for the Common Room, not just for the sake of the academic staff, but for our own sake too.