OUSU joins criticism of University over harassment case

OUSU Council has voted to support an open letter in which 135 students and alumni expressed “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. A coroner told the inquest that Coursier had receive “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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Elena Cagnoli, Graduate Students Women Representative, said, “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.”

At OUSU Council on Wednesday night, an emergency motion passed that was proposed by Sarah Pine, OUSU VP Women. It noted the “lack of information communicated to directly affected students is concerning” and that the decision to keep Ketland in contact with students “did not have to occur.” The motion resolved “to add OUSU Council to the list of signatures” of the open letter.

Pine commented, “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.”

An Oxford University spokesperson responded to the letter, saying, “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.”

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Several signatories responded negatively to these University comments. Rachel Fraser and Jacob Williamson, who attended the meeting held by the Department of Philosophy, said, “The University’s statement is potentially misleading. The meeting referred to did take place, but students were given no details not already in the public domain concerning any review or investigation undertaken by the University. Details of the coroner’s inquest were given to students during the meeting. The results of the coroner’s inquest were, at the time of the meeting, a matter of public record. No one representing the Department or University attended the inquest. All questions concerning particular cases were met with an insistence that no comment could be made.”