One of the world’s oldest debating clubs has been given six months to admit women members and open its doors to the public, a two-page review by the University of Edinburgh has concluded.
The Speculative Society, known as the “Spec” to its invited members, has held black-tie meetings in candlelit Old College rooms held exclusively for the Society since 1819. Whilst no formal rules prevent women members, and the club has no legal requirement to accept them, none have been admitted in its 250 year history.
This may change following a report by Professor Mary Bownes, Senior Vice Principal, which highlighted three “key issues” concerning the University-Spec relationship: “The lack of current value to the University of Edinburgh for having the Society on its premises”, the occupation of Old College rooms “with very little use” and the “lack of alignment” between the “constitution and governance” of both organisations.
The report proposed the Society would have six months to “show they are changing […] and evidence that the changes are in line with University ethos and opening up to the wider public before a decision is made on next steps.”
Admitting female members and opening the Society’s rooms to the public were listed as suggestions for the Spec to follow. The report added: “If the society changes in a way acceptable to the staff and students of the University and there is a wish to enable them to remain on campus the terms of this need to be clear and open.”
The review, which aimed to examine the Society’s links with the University, its position within Old College and its all-male membership, was announced in March following an investigation by The Student. The investigation found that the Society paid the University no rent or tax for the use of its property and that the University had supported the Society with staff and services.
According to the Scottish Assessors Association, as “proprietor” of Old College, the University is subject to pay a net rateable value of £357,000 per annum in “non domestic” tax.
One law school staff member, who wished not to be named, said the review did not adequately fulfil its aim of examining the Society’s legal claim to the Old College rooms.
“It doesn’t address the underlying issues of what is [the University’s] legal obligation in relation to the Spec in the context of the rooms and whether this is the kind of organisation we should be giving support to,” they added. “It’s disappointing that a Principal who clearly demonstrates a commitment to equality and diversity appears unwilling to grapple with the issues that remain by the presence of this group.”
In 1769, the Society obtained permission from Edinburgh Town Council, the University patrons at the time, to build a meeting hall on the then vacant Old College site. The Council agreed to provide the Society with rooms in the new building following the hall’s demolition, though ultimate ownership rested with the patrons. Control of the property was transferred to the University under the 1861 Edinburgh University Property Arrangement Act.
Whilst Bownes mentioned the Society paid to originally furnish the rooms (totalling £270 in 1824, £11,318 today), pay “to paint and refurbish the rooms” and pay for “servitorial support” during meetings, “no evidence” could be found that the Society paid the University for the rooms’ use. The report did not state whether the Society would be required to pay to use the rooms in the future.
In accordance with the Society’s laws, the rooms’ “Custodier” – selected from University janitorial or servitorial staff – will “receive such sum as the Society may from time to time determine”. However, the University bears the cost of hiring and training staff.
It is so simple, the Spec changes or it dies.” – Peter de Vink, Midlothian East councillor and Society member
Speaking to The Student, Edinburgh Central MSP Marco Biagi said:
“As Scotland’s largest and highest internationally-ranked university, Edinburgh is in the spotlight and has an obligation to ensure it is not supporting or can be thought to be supporting organisations who would conflict with its responsibilities to diversity, equality and openness. Where such links may occur they should act – and in the past have acted – to address them”
As The Student reported in March, the University contributed towards the rooms’ renovation in 1968 (total cost of redevelopment £1,272/10/3 in pre-decimal currency, £20,177 today) by providing “an Adam mantelpiece” for the Society. The mantelpiece later “proved to be unsuitable” and was not used. These details went unmentioned in the review.
The Student also revealed that a law student who spoke out against the Society’s all-male membership was told by a Spec member that “anyone who wanted to have a future in the legal profession in Scotland would be seriously damaging their career by speaking out against the society.”
A submission to the review in July by the same student, who wished to remain anonymous, contained the following passage: “There is no doubt the Society genuinely believes it can inflict damage on a student if it chooses to, and it has no qualms in wielding that threat”.
Neither the comment nor the submission was mentioned in the report.
“It leaves me speechless,” said Peter de Vink, Midlothian East councillor and Society member. “It is so simple, the Spec changes or it dies. If it refuses to change, the sooner it is disposed of the better!”
He added: “This coming November the Spec celebrates a staggering 250 years of existence and it is so sad that the current officers were unable to introduce the first female member.”
De Vink stated that he had recently tried to suggest a female candidate for membership but her application was “stonewalled”.
He said: “I was told I had to wait until after the celebration. Currently the Spec is simply not fit for purpose and fails to see how inept the organisation is in today’s environment. Even the R&A allowed lady members!”
“They have an enormous responsibility on their hands. Apparently a few of them are making all the noises […] a few dinosaurs are crying: “Stop the inevitable!””
“The rooms are sensational but need badly to be refurbished. These rooms should be open to all and sundry, the idea they are out of bounds to the rest of the University is so absurd and shows rather mediocre governance by that amazingly successful University.”
Dash Sekhar, Edinburgh University Students’ Association (EUSA) Vice President Academic Affairs, added: “I’m glad the excellent work students have done in highlighting the issue has resulted in a response from the University. However, while a six month probation to show change is a positive, the period is meaningless if the University do not state explicitly the actions they will take against the Society if there isn’t sufficient change on all fronts, and I urge that the University makes the repercussions clear at this stage.”
Responding to questions regarding: whether the report’s proposals would be enforced, whether the Society would face repercussions if the proposals were not followed, and whether the Society would have to pay for the rooms’ future use, a University spokesperson said: “The University of Edinburgh is committed to the ethos of equality and diversity on its campus. In light of this, Senior Vice Principal Professor Mary Bownes was asked to carry out a review of the historic links between the University and the Speculative Society, which occupies rooms in Old College.
“Her report, which has been agreed by senior management in the University, proposes that the Speculative Society is given six months to show that it is changing to comply with this ethos by admitting female members along with males. The report also recommends that the Society agrees to make the historic rooms more accessible to the public.”
A Speculative Society spokesperson could not be reached for comment.