The Mancunion

Britain's biggest student newspaper

Manchester alumnus sparks outrage at Student Leaders Conference

Comments about dating geeky girls and making friends with suffers of OCD to ‘get ahead at uni’ left some students aghast

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University of Manchester alumnus Tomas Paulik was the guest of honour at a conference whose presentation caused many students distress and upset with its content.

The Student Leaders’ Conference, organised by The University of Manchester Students’ Union, involved a morning and afternoon session of talks, workshops, and networking opportunities for committee members and student leaders at the University.

Photo: Manchester Students' Union

Photo: Manchester Students’ Union

One of Paulik’s comments made during the morning session encouraged students to network and “make friends with weird people,” with “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder” listed as an example beneath an image of a person washing their hands. Also listed were those who suffer from “Asperger’s Syndrome” and “introverts.”

The speaker had another slide that encouraged students to “date a geek girl” alongside an image of a woman in glasses and a schoolgirl uniform. This featured beside the quote: “never sleep with a girl who doesn’t know Fourier transforms.”

Some students and staff members at the Students’ Union were seen looking visibly uncomfortable and surprised by the slides. Shortly after he rushed through the rest of his presentation, a Students’ Union staff member who organised the event apologised and explained that these comments did not reflect the views of the Students’ Union.

An upset attendee, who chose to remain anonymous, commented that the incident was “absolutely disgusting to someone like me who struggles with a chronic mental illness… fetishising mental illnesses diminish their seriousness as psychological conditions that are distressing and difficult.

“He came across as ignorant and insensitive, so I couldn’t take anything he said seriously,” they added. Shortly after the slides had been shown, the University’s part time Transgender Officer and member of the UoM Feminist Collective tweeted the following:

yikes dot com forward slash here's why you should check through your guest speakers' powerpoint before inviting them to do a talk pic.twitter.com/UhuDJqG22G

— rob (@noonbinary) September 16, 2017

 

Rob also spoke with The Mancunion about their experience, saying “I feel really frustrated about the whole situation because the event was otherwise pretty good, and I know the SU do decent work to support disabled students elsewhere, so I was really shocked at the content in the presentation.”

“It’s also pretty ironic considering how strict the SU are about societies booking speakers in for events”, they added.

The Students’ Union, and The National Union of Students as a whole, has a policy whereby speakers can be ‘no-platformed’ if enough people raise concerns about the content, and has been criticised in the past for restricting the right to free speech.

The University of Manchester Students’ Union released a statement commenting on the events at the conference, saying that they “would like to acknowledge the impact and apologise for any offence caused during the slides within the aforementioned presentation.

“With a very clear brief provided and no concerns regarding the speaker’s background, the Students’ Union felt confident that we did not need to vet the speaker’s presentation and content.”

The Union’s General Secretary Alex Tayler also stated: “I would like to thank the students who had the confidence and skills to challenge this incident; as a Students’ Union this is something we will continue to support and encourage. Following the initial presentation, we were able to use this as an opportunity to guide the presenter for future reference.”

The speaker in question graduated from the University of Manchester in 2012 with a degree in Artificial Intelligence and was awarded the Kilburn scholarship for academic excellence. He is a software engineer and has given lectures as a guest speaker at various prestigious academic Institutions. When asked for comment on the incident, Paulik told the Mancunion “The presentation is using elements of modern marketing, due to its targeted audience — students interested in entrepreneurship — and is to some extent of a humorous nature.

“The organisation did not inform me about the conservative nature of the conference and its audience. Should I have known this, I would adapt the content accordingly.

“It was definitely not my intention to make anyone feel uncomfortable with the presented content, and I would like to express my apologies, should that have happened.

He added that “immediately after my talk, the organisers played a video which was focused on leadership. The video features nine males and zero female leaders. If a line-up of white male role models presented by the Diversity Officer is being considered as appropriate content, then I don’t understand how my talk can be subject of such inadequate criticism [sic]”

The Students’ Union have encouraged anyone who feels affected by the subject matter of this article to contact their free and confidential Advice Service.