The Interview UK
Durham University
Pro Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

Shaid Mahmood

As our society becomes increasingly diverse, universities are taking proactive steps to create learning communities that don’t merely accept differences, but embrace them. This understanding is central to the work of Shaid Mahmood, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Durham University, who oversees his institution’s strategies for widening access and promoting cultural change.

Co-Host of The Interview Max Webber sat down with Shaid to discuss the importance of relationships in building trust, fostering inclusion in a collegiate system, and the responsibility of universities to safeguard free and open debate. 

Shaid's Journey

Max: Let’s start with a quick introduction to your role and your organisation.

I’m Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) at Durham University. At Durham, we have about 21,000 students and 6,000 staff. Though our learning community is predominantly white, we are becoming increasingly diverse every year. We’re doing a lot of thinking about how we can widen access to the organisation, for both students and staff.

Max: Prior to moving to Durham, you worked for the local government in Leeds. What inspired you to move into higher education?

I’ve had a varied career, moving from research and development in manufacturing to working in local government to prevent extremism. I’ve also done a lot of work around transformation and change, helping organisations adapt to the times. Alongside that, I’ve chaired the boards of a primary school, a high school, and a college. In all those roles, I worked closely with the universities around Leeds, so I was familiar with the higher educational landscape. My experience with higher education inspired me to come to Durham, but I was also driven by the drive to deliver cultural change and make people’s lives better. EDI is a great lever for organisational and cultural change, and I’ve seen the difference it can make. The opportunity to do that at a Russell Group university was too good to turn down. 

Max: What’s your approach to embedding a sense of inclusion and belonging for students of all backgrounds?

All of our work, but especially EDI, is built on relationships. If you have strong relationships, you can build trust; and if you have trust, you can move mountains. We try to be very clear about our university’s purpose and values. Then, you can start to model behaviours which can help to create a sense of belonging. So last year, we established a Purpose Statement which outlined our core lived values, and for the first time, inclusivity was one of them. 

Max: What strategies have you found most effective for getting students engaged in issues such as inclusion?

It needs to be done in the language, space, and time that works for the students. At Durham, we have a collegiate system, so we have a caring model which is more decentralised than most universities. That brings strengths, but also the danger of inconsistency. We have 17 colleges, but if each one does things differently, that can cause disconnect. So we’re working very hard to coordinate student experience and mental health strategy and integrate our student support systems. We want students to be able to knock on any door and ask for help. 

As well as our Purpose Statement, we’ve developed our Graduate Attributes, which describe the type of student we are trying to cultivate. We don’t just want to produce great graduates; we want to produce great people who will change the world and enrich the lives of others. Our Inclusivity Statement outlines students’ rights, but also their responsibilities; we expect our students to celebrate difference, celebrate each other, and strive for a learning community which is inclusive and fair for all.

Max: You mentioned that your students have rights as well as responsibilities. How do you communicate those responsibilities within a collegiate system?

The college system is central, and it’s really forward-facing; we work with students before they arrive to really absorb them into college life. Our pastoral support systems are embedded in the colleges, and this year we’ve bolstered them with additional staff to help create a sense of belonging and community. Even if you live off-campus, you still remain a member of the college, and you’ll still be invited to all social events. The university not only has to work hand-in-glove with our colleges but also our academic departments. One danger with a collegiate system is a separation between the colleges and the university, but if everyone works as part of the same whole, then it can be very powerful. 

Max: Some students are easier to engage than others. How do you make sure everyone is included in those key conversations?

There is great engagement in both our college systems and our central university system. We’re creating a more integrated approach to student support, underpinned by a new computer network which allows us to case-manage our work with individual students. It’s not just about offering support but also challenging students in constructive ways. We keep very closely connected with all our 21,000 students, and we strive to make sure that no one slips through the net. If students are struggling, it’s vital that they know when to ask for help and where to go for support. We’re all part of a community; it’s not about making students dependent on us, but acknowledging that we are interdependent. Some people from diverse communities find it quite hard to ask for help, so we need to make sure everyone feels comfortable to come forward. 

Max: When it comes to free speech, how can we encourage students to debate across difference in a respectful way?

We have a learning and development program called Respect which teaches the skills and knowledge needed to create a respectful environment. As an academic institution, our mission is the advancement of learning, and the right to free expression is central to that. So we need to learn to listen to each other and disagree amicably. One of our five core values is collaboration, and that involves listening to everyone with empathy and compassion. Everyone at the university has a part to play in making that ambition a success. 

Max: What’s the best piece of wisdom you’ve heard during your career?

Trust your instincts. Your “Spidey Sense” is never wrong! You can spend weeks gathering intelligence, but at the end of the day, you need to trust your gut.

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Max Webber
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