“Stop the Ageism!” Internal emails reveal fierce Information Services modelling dispute

Management at the University of Edinburgh’s Information Services (IS) have been accused by their staff of encouraging institutional ageism, The Student can reveal.

The row erupted in late August, after an email was sent out to all IS staff asking for “young-looking staff” to model as students. Some IS staff, concerned by the specific request for young volunteers, replied over the IS mailing list highlighting that mature students may be discouraged or offended by their actions.

However, their complaints were answered by Human Resources, with a request that “no more ‘all staff’ emails [be] sent on the subject” and that “HR will now deal with the matter as a training issue.”

When the mailing list continued to be used by disgruntled IS staff, Chief Information Officer and Librarian to the University Gavin McLachlan waded into the dispute, now referred to as ‘Ageism-gate’ within Information Services.

McLachlan defended the original email, saying that “it is permissible in law to determine what age profile or other characteristics one is attempting to attract”, and concluding that “the use of ‘reply to all’ emails is not acceptable in this case.”

Derrick Farnell, a shelving assistant at the university library and one of the most vocal staff throughout the dispute, told The Student, “This request clearly stereotypes students as young adults, despite the university claiming to be an educational institution for all ages (with the exception of medicine).”

He continued, “Also, the proposed photographs would clearly help perpetuate that stereotype, and potentially make older current students feel excluded, and give older adults thinking of becoming mature students the impression that the university is really for young adults.”

 

“When in a hole, stop digging”

 

The original request for young models, sent on August 26th by IS’s Head of Web, Graphics and Interaction, read, “Some of you may be aware of the photography being commissioned for the new IS Website homepage. We have scheduled in times and locations for the photography, but we need help from young-looking staff, placement students or interns, to be models in the photos.”

A further email was sent, specifying, “To clarify, the models are to stand-in-for and look-like students in photos. [We] aren’t short of staff to act as staff!”

The request was met with a cold reception over the IS mailing list, with one staff member replying, “When in a hole, stop digging.”

Another reply simply declared, “Stop the ageism!”

Derrick Farnell replied on behalf of the concerned staff, stating “Your clarification still stereotypes students as being young – the university accepts students of all ages. Having promotional material that only includes images of young students helps perpetuate the sense, that many people still have, that university is only for young adults.” Farnell’s email was received positively by some other IS staff, who responded with “Well said” and “Hear hear”, or encouraged him privately to continue exerting pressure on IS management.

 

“I don’t think our website reflects these numbers”

 

Other IS staff contributed to the conversation.

After one staff member commented that “a lot of the silent majority on this list don’t really care one way or the other”, another replied with, “One reply implied that the silent majority may think it is [okay] to present a skewed view of who our students are. I’d like to believe otherwise. Unless our definition of diversity is to have enough blonde, ginger and dark hair people under 25 (this is what I see every time when I visit the University website). I am still trying to find a picture of 50+ years old student or one on a wheelchair…

“Almost 9 [per cent] of students (3,079) are classified as disabled, although I understand not all of them have ‘visible’ disability. […] Almost 25 [per cent] are aged 25 and over (8,736 out of 35,258).”

The staff member continued: “I don’t think that our website reflects these numbers. It is possible that up to 34 [per cent] of the whole student population may not to be represented (this is assuming none of the disabled students is over 25). Maybe it’s time to tell the real story and make it a University wide policy that we ONLY use our own students on the University websites instead of models or stock pictures?”

 

“Slim Pickings”

 

On August 27th, Farnell pointed out, “Hilariously, the university’s microsite for mature students only shows photos of students of around 20 […] Or perhaps I’m just getting old.”

Upon seeing Farnell’s email, and following internal discussions, a member of Student Recruitment and Admissions (SRA) changed the banner photo on the mature students’ microsite. However, internal emails reveal that the SRA member had a difficult time finding stock photos of older students.

In early September, the SRA staff member told somebody in IS, “I’ve made the change already, let me know if you think the new one is any better. It really is slim pickings I’m afraid.”

The IS member then emailed a colleague, saying, “For info, I have spoken with [a member of SRA] about the suitability of the banner image. […] He has updated it to a new one […] but reasonably points out that mature students are anyone over 21 and there are very few images available to choose from.”

 

“Equality, Diversity, Dignity and Respect”

 

When Human Resources failed to stop staff replying to the entire IS mailing list, Gavin McLachlan sent out an email in early September saying, “Following the recent spate of emails last week entitled ‘Website photography models needed’ it is important that I draw your attention to the following;

“[…] It is clear that there was never any intention in [the original] email to cause any offence whatsoever and [it has] has been taken out of context with regard to the aim of the request.

“The aim was to ‘cast for a specific role’, in this case for models needed for a website, in which case it is permissible in law to determine what age profile or other characteristics one is attempting to attract.”

McLachlan continued: “However, I was concerned about the way some members of staff chose to address their apparent dissatisfaction via email by using ‘reply to all’.  […] What should be made clear at this point is the use of ‘reply to all’ emails is not acceptable in this case.”

Head of Collections Development and Access Laura Shanahan later informed IS staff: “I want to let you know that I will be discussing this issue further within my own team. Please do not send any further emails related to this issue to this public list. If anybody wishes to discuss this further with me, I am available to speak to them.””

When approached by The Student, a spokesperson from the University of Edinburgh stated: “The University has a strong commitment to equality, diversity, dignity and respect and has a number of policies and procedures in place in this regard. The University is committed to ensuring that our entire community is aware of our position on issues relating to equality, diversity, dignity and respect.”

 

“Institutionally ageist”

 

One staff member, replying just to McLachlan, Farnell, and Shanahan, stated, “I would just like to say that I did not find the email exchange on the public list disturbing, to the contrary, it was interesting and thought-provoking and, I believe, politely worded.

“I am not sure whether the all-staff list is the correct place for such an issue to be debated, but I do think it is an issue that should be addressed publicly/collectively and not individually.”

Meanwhile, Farnell, continuing to use ‘reply to all’ after McLachlan’s warning, claimed with the support of other IS staff that “your only criticism is aimed at those of us who were willing to stand up and criticise this explicit ageism. Even your phrase ‘spate of emails’ has negative connotations.”

Speaking to The Student, Farnell recounted: “I was then officially spoken to by the head of my sub-department, and warned that I was close to being disciplined, and advised that our complaints could be interpreted as bullying – even though they were expressed in measured language, which contained no personal attacks on the sender of the original request. It was also reiterated that the original request wasn’t ageist.

“Given all of this, it seems that IS – and perhaps the rest of the university – is institutionally ageist. Indeed, I don’t remember ever seeing, on the university website, a photograph of students – models or real – who weren’t young adults.”

Image: The row, called ‘Ageism-gate’ by staff, took place within the University’s Information Services, based on Buccleuch Place.

Image credit: Gavin Dewar

 

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