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Ella Gilbert: why I didn’t shake Edward Acton’s hand

The grad season is upon us: the time for sweaty palms, nervous, tipsy grins and synthetic wizard robes. Thousands of third year students graduated last week amidst cheers and storms of applause celebrating three years of (mostly) hard graft. Like the rest, I was pleased that it was all over and happy that I could finally get my hands on a tangible recognition of all that work. There was one small hurdle though: the small matter of a certain pompous ceremony. I’m not sure there are many people who relish standing in a billowing Harry Potter gown in front of 800 people, but looking like a prat was lower on my agenda than it might otherwise have been. Sure, I was worried that I might stack it up the stairs or walk off the stage by the wrong exit, but more than anything I was rehearsing what I was going to say to the man I would have to refuse to shake hands with before collecting my certificate. Unfortunately for me, my ceremony was presided over by Edward Acton, the outgoing Vice Chancellor of UEA who will be replaced by David Richardson this coming September. In the run-up to this day, I’d gladly, and perhaps misguidedly, trilled that I would refuse to shake the hand of a man who had overseen such a shocking and deplorable track record of management during the course of my university career. Now, I had to stick to my guns and actually do it.

lair of edward acton
Cartoon: the squibbler

Here’s the back story: spurred by the climate of austerity, UEA management has jumped on the bandwagon and embraced the ConDem government’s decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9000 a year. Meanwhile, funding for the arts has been slashed dramatically, and diverted to more revenue-intensive schools (i.e. the ones that make them money, like the business school). The closure of the School of Music is possibly the most deplorable and reprehensible act of Acton’s management stint (in my time at least), and epitomises the attitude of managers high up in the university – if it doesn’t make money, cut it. It’s merely a symptom of a wider trend of marketisation and commodification of higher education, forced by free market government policy and liberalism. The recent decision to hike accommodation fees for new students beginning in 2014/15 smacks of further attempts to squeeze yet more money out of already heavily indebted students. Acton’s period as VC of the university has seen a liberalised approach that seeks to increase income from students and cut supposedly ‘unnecessary’ expenditure. One such example of this is the way in which university management keeps some staff members on temporary contracts, rather than granting longer-term permanent contracts with the associated benefits (read expenditure) such as sick pay, holiday, and pensions. Some people may remember the UCU strike that threatened to jeopardise this whole glorious week of pomp and rigour – third year students would not have been able to graduate if lecturers wouldn’t mark scripts. They were striking over a real-terms pay cut of 13% since 2008, as the university hadn’t raised wages in line with inflation. In the end, they settled for a 2% pay rise, which although a small victory, did not satisfy many of their demands, and is certainly not sustainable into the future.


I’m not a naturally confrontational person (though I’m sure there will be many raised eyebrows at that statement) and the thought of saying to his face that I thought he was a twat (obviously more eloquently) was giving me the kind of butterflies you wouldn’t believe. There I was, standing in the hushed and silent corridor with my political convictions and better instincts wrestling uneasily in my guts, while the surnames being read out on the list were marching steadily towards G and I was inching closer to the stage. Finally it was decision time: there he was, looking like a medieval birdman, resplendent in squishy orange, and suddenly I was walking up the stairs and determinedly keeping my hands clasped, jaw set, avoiding the outstretched hand. He looked flustered and embarrassed when he realised that I wasn’t going to shake it “due to his deplorable management of the last three years” but it was over almost before it began and he had 180 other graduands to attend to. My heart was going like the clappers as I collected my certificate and walked my jelly legs back down the aisle, but I was pleased I hadn’t flaked out on my own morals. The speech that closed the ceremony seemed to seal the deal – Philip Lowe, veteran multi-disciplinarian who received an honorary degree from ENV, spoke of lateral thinking and staying true to ones’ beliefs. It seemed to confirm everything, and I went off feeling enlarged with self-righteousness to drink as much free champagne as I could without bubbles coming out of my nose.


About Author

ellagilbert Leopard-print head, boxer, vegetable habit. WLTM skilled writers w/ GSOH. Ella is the token radical, fond of spouting defamatory remarks about people in positions of power. Now she’s got her own, she’ll likely spend the year struggling to reconcile new-found authority with her love of non-hierarchical decision-making and/or complete her masters in climate science.

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8 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Ella Gilbert: why I didn’t shake Edward Acton’s hand”

  1. I agree with the sentiment behind this, but I must ask: why, then, even attend graduation? We know there is no obligation to attend the ‘pompous’ ceremony. The biggest ‘fuck you’ would have been to have not turned up at all; to not spend money on gowns, etc. Graduations are like the year’s biggest money-making opportunity for universities. It’s like walking into McDonalds, buying a Big Mac and shouting ‘fuck corporatism!’.

    • Because plenty of student, every year, don’t turn up because they’re ill, or working, or travelling. Because this way he actually notices, and so does everyone else – the author wanted to shame him, and this does.

      • That others don’t attend graduation for various non-political reasons doesn’t matter. That is, more often than not, the nature of boycotting. eg. Plenty of people might not buy Sabra humous because they don’t eat humous, or prefer a different brand of humous, etc. but others will actively avoid buying it as part of BDS against Israel.

        And it’s not just about the handshake. The article derides the entire ceremony itself and I just cannot understand why someone would attend and spend their money on something they viewed so negatively. As I said, graduations are huge money-making opportunities for universities. Any embarrassment for the VC would have been brief; he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

        • “Any embarrassment for the VC would have been brief; he’s laughing all the way to the bank.”

          Spoken like the words of someone whose never partaken in activism or any all-round mischief making in his or her life. Bore off.

          The decision to attend the ceremony rather than boycott altogether is summed up succinctly in the comment previous – in that the act of denying the handshake will at least have SOME momentary impact on an otherwise unaware perpetrator, albeit a fleeting moment of embarrassment.

          But it’s also worth remembering that to deny oneself of the graduation ceremony is also to deny one’s parents what might be a once in a lifetime chance to see their little’n receive their honours. (Especially if they themselves have felt the burden of their kids’ increased tuition fees.)

          Well played Ms Gilbert.

          • [This comment was added by ‘Anon’ on 30/07/2014 @ 4:48 PM and relocated by the editor to reply to the correct comment thread]

            I agree with your point about parents – I hadn’t considered that, and that’s is perfectly fair. Though I still hold that partaking in the ceremony, wearing the full attire etc. does somewhat undermine the message.

            In regards to your snobby assumption of my own activities: Is (student) activism immune to criticism? Is every stunt and campaign without its flaws? If being an activist means being completely uncritical of tactics, then it doesn’t say much about your activism.

    • Agreed: but how to convey to the management that I was boycotting the ceremony? They would merely have assumed I was on holiday, or didn’t want to come… by refusing publicly, on stage, to shake his hand, I was making a scene out of it – which is what he didn’t want. Buying into the ridiculous money factory nature of it was sadly necessary to do that (plus I think my parents would’ve killed me, but that’s a side issue…!)

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