Following an upsurge in the number of reported incidents of sexual harassment and sexual assault in college, Somerville JCR has passed an emergency motion condemning “the actions which have led to this deterioration of respect in college”.
The motion, proposed by the JCR Executive Committee, was deemed necessary after the college’s Principal, Dr Alice Prochaska, sent an email to the JCR body last week, explaining, “We all share a pride in Somerville’s great traditions of fairness, diversity and tolerance.
“In recent months there has been a deterioration in this climate of respect. Many of you will not have noticed it and I believe it is confined to a small minority. But members of that minority have succeeded in making significant numbers of their fellow students feel threatened, intimidated, or simply uncomfortable.
“I have received reports of rude and sometimes threatening behaviour on a scale unprecedented in my time as Principal.
“It is profoundly worrying to find that members of the student body in Somerville have been making their fellow students feel intimidated and in some cases have been guilty of both verbal and physical assault.”
Incidents reported include jokes about rape being made in the college bar, numerous reports of groping at bops, homophobic comments being made in order to justify opposition to the JCR Equalities week budget, and pressure being put on students to assent to sexual activity.
The JCR motion resolved to mandate the equalities committee to donate £200 to Oxford Sexual Abuse & Rape Crisis Centre (OSARCC), to demonstrate Somerville’s intolerance of the behaviour reported in the college recently. The motion passed by an overwhelming majority, with 83 students voting in favour of the motion, none voting against, and with eight abstentions.
On behalf of the Somerville Rugby Club, undergraduate Tom Smith wrote an open letter on Wednesday, stating, “The Somerville Rugby Club wholeheartedly and fully condemns sexual assault, misogyny, and all other forms of harassment. It is hard to conceive of actions that are more horrific and their perpetrators should be punished to the full extent of the law.
“Moreover, we believe Somerville should be a supportive and inclusive environment where people feel safe and comfortable.”
The letter went on to mention how all members of the Somerville Rugby Club recently attended the ‘GoodLad Workshop’.
Shyamli Badgaiyan, the JCR President, commented, “Somerville has always been a very open, accepting community: one that values tolerance and respect in all aspects of student life. Aside from having a diverse, close-knit student community, we recently held a successful Equalities Week, boast a feminist discussion group, and regularly donate to causes that support equality and diversity both within and beyond our community.”
Badgaiyan continued, “Although very rare, these incidents of harassment and intimidation shocked many of us. I can confidently say that the vast majority of the student body deems them as absolutely unacceptable.
“Many of us have also been working closely with the college to ensure welfare provision and various workshops continue to be in place to make sure students feel both aware and protected – regardless of their age, gender, sexuality or background. Everyone must understand the harm of such disrespect, as well as feel comfortable in speaking up against it.
“While its extremely sad that these incidents have occurred here, I believe it is a symptom of a wider, societal problem that needs to be addressed immediately.”
Badgaiyan praised the College’s response to the recent behaviour reported in Somerville, saying, “I am proud to be part of a college that has been working tirelessly to take a firm step in this direction, confronting the matter with honesty as well as extreme sensitivity.
“This itself is the real Somerville culture – not our immunity from these rare instances, but our ability to stand up and face them with courage and solidarity.”
Dr Prochaska told Cherwell, “The cases we are dealing with are not numerous: just troubling enough to make us take action before the problem grows. Somerville is a lovely, welcoming, inclusive and tolerant place. Our students tell me that this college feels like home; it is a place where everyone can be themselves.
“The College is notable for its relaxed and mutually respectful climate; and we all feel proud of it. These instances of disrespectful behaviour are truly unusual.
“I am confident, now that the college community is aware, that this kind of conduct will die away. It is important for the students themselves to call out their peers on poor behaviour. Often, the people responsible may not realise the impact they are having on others; and once they do realise, I believe they will stop.”
Dr Prochaska further added, “We are acting now to try to help our students to stamp out this small growth in an undesirable culture: so that there is no lingering bad influence when our new first years arrive.
“At Somerville, we have always promoted an inclusive, tolerant and diverse ethic; and the vast majority of our students appreciate this and promote it too. Against this proud tradition, it is disappointing when any students, however small the number, start intimidating others.
“I am delighted that Somerville’s student body is speaking out about these issues. The College’s officers and the JCR are working together to address these worrying reports. Intimidating behaviour has no place at Somerville. Between us, we need to take decisive action.”
Elliot Howard-Spink, one of Somerville’s Welfare Reps, told Cherwell, “All members of the JCR have come together over the past week in agreement that any behaviours which may elicit intimidation of any kind within college are not welcome.
“It’s been good to see the JCR and College addressing reported issues surrounding harassment in a proactive manner, and we all hope that Somerville will continue to keep its reputation as a welcoming and safe college.”