Open letter criticises Oxford’s harassment policy

135 students, OUSU sabbatical officers and alumni have sent an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, expressing “concern and dismay” at the University’s handling of a student’s death.

An inquest into the death of Charlotte Coursier heard that she had been harassed by Pembroke Philosophy tutor Dr Jeffrey Ketland. The inquest heard evidence that Coursier had recieved ‘crazy and rambling emails’ from Ketland before she took her own life. Dr Ketland remained an employee of the university while an internal review was conducted, and he continues to be employed at Pembroke.

The open letter states, “We worry about the lack of information communicated to students. We further worry about the decision to keep Dr Ketland in institutionally mediated contact with students after the review began.”

The 135 signatories includes 39 of Coursier’s fellow Philosophy BPhil students, and 24 Philosophy DPhil students. Sarah Pine, OUSU VP Women, Lucy Delaney, OUSU Women’s Campaign Officer, Rebekka Hammelsbeck, former OUSU Women’s Campaign Officer, and several organisers of the It Happens Here campaign also signed the letter.

The letter criticises the university for failing to keep students informed about the review. It says, “The lack of comment has created a difficult atmosphere in the Philosophy Faculty. Some students now fear that harassment charges are not taken seriously. Others were upset to only learn of the situation in the national press.”

Secondly, the letter suggests the university should have limited student contact with Ketland after the police issued a warning under the Harassment Act. It reads, “It is strongly in the interests of students not to be placed at undue risk of harassment. It seems to us that when harassment allegations are made against a member of staff, the University should limit their institutionally mediated contact with students whilst a review occurs.”

As the letter notes, Ketland continued to have contact with students as the university conducted its review, urging “the swift adoption of such a suspension policy.”

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A university spokesperson said, “The University can confirm it has received the open letter and has noted its contents. All University policies are kept actively under review.”

On the question of communication with students, a spokesperson told Cherwell, “The Department of Philosophy has held a meeting with graduate students to inform of the outcome of the inquest into Charlotte’s death and to discuss any questions arising.”
 
“A University review concluded in October. Its purpose was to inform senior members of the University of the circumstances of Charlotte’s death and to advise on any future steps. The findings of the review remain confidential but University is continuing to consider the most appropriate action as a consequence.”
 
Regarding the allegations against Dr Ketland, the University said it does not comment on individual members of staff.

Sarah Pine, OUSU VP Women, told Cherwell, “I decided to sign the letter because I share in the concern and dismay directed towards the information denied towards students at Oxford, as well as the decision to keep Ketland in contact with students while an investigation was ongoing.

“Women, even Oxford women, experience harassment and relationship abuse so frequently, it is saddening that they cannot be sure that others will respond in the ways that will best support them.”

Elena Cagnoli, Graduate Students Women Representative, explained her reasoning for signing the letter. “I signed the letter to urge the university to handle cases of alleged harassment more openly and carefully. The University’s duty of care towards its members, I think, demands such openness and attention toward the students’ welfare. The lack of information communicated to present and incoming students and the decision to keep the alleged harasser in institutionally mediated contact with students after the review began created a bad atmosphere amongst the student community.

“In order prevent this from happening again, the University could and should, I think, adopt a non-prejudicial suspension policy during reviews of harassment allegations. Such a policy would be in line with its own statute and with its duty of care. I think that the faculty of philosophy has been supportive of the students’ concerns, as well as respectful of the need of privacy and due process. I am grateful to the faculty for its support, and I hope the University will join students and faculty in their efforts to make Oxford a better place for women philosophers.”

The letter was first published on the blog Feminist Philosophers here and can be read in full here.

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Read Cherwell’s initial coverage of the inquest here.