Senior University of Exeter staff member apologises after comparing student protest to ‘cyber terrorism’

The leaked email sent to staff

The University of Exeter’s head of education services has apologised after comparing an email protest by the group Students For Academic Mitigation to “cyber terrorism” in a leaked internal email.

The email stated that the protest “may be a damp squib but otherwise possibly hit hard teams like SID and Hubs”, the university’s enquiry points, and “I would equate such action to cyber terrorism and I don’t feel the need to respond.”

Students For Academic Mitigation today launched “#SaveOurGrades Day”, describing the event “as our opportunity to tell the uni we need protective academic policies” to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ grades. The group said: “Use our copy and paste messages, or your own, to comment, message and email every Exeter University account you can find!”

Exeter Students’ Guild President Sunday Blake has called the email’s language “unacceptable”, requesting that “no one sends further emails directly to the individual’s email address” so as to avoid “a harassment campaign”. She added: “I raised this with the Vice Chancellor directly, who took it very seriously and began to deal with it immediately.”

The university has responded to the leak with a message written by the staff member to colleagues, saying: “I apologise for the unwise choice of words in my earlier message. As I understood it, the aim of today’s protest was to bombard all University enquiry points with high numbers of messages so as to disrupt our operations.

“For the Education Services Teams, this would mean we were unable to respond to enquiries from students who may need urgent help. Supporting our students is our priority at all times.

“I understand that the Deputy Vice-Chancellor and the Education team have been working with student representatives on our policy and hope to communicate this in the next day or so.”

Students For Academic Mitigation told the Anchor: “The aim of today has always been for as many student voices as possible to offer support for the student representatives who meet with the university and negotiate these policies, to make clear that the views they express to the senior team are held by the majority of the student body.

“We encouraged students to reach out to academic staff they know personally through seminars or tutors, and to open up a dialogue with those members of staff about how we appreciate their efforts but that we still need more support in the form of formal policy. We want to ally ourselves with the academics that do so much to support us, not alienate them.

“Our event was never intended to overwhelm internal student hubs and help desks as the email suggested. This was a peaceful form of self-expression open to all students, not a militant attack on the university.”

Update: On 14 January, the Falmouth & Exeter Students’ Union told the Anchor: “At the Students’ Union, we were disappointed to see the leaked email from a University of Exeter staff member detailing a highly insensitive, ill-judged, and offensive comment equating peaceful protesting to ‘cyber terrorism’. We believe in students’ rights to free speech and peaceful protest. We’re supporting and representing students who feel that their grades need better protection this year through our ‘No Detriment Campaign’. As a part of this, Cara, president Exeter, is working with the Students for Academic Mitigation group who led the ‘#SaveOurGrades Day’ yesterday. We hope that this incident doesn’t deter students from utilising their voices and getting involved with the campaign.”