Colleges are funny places. They inhabit a mixed identity: as historical institutions with timeless characters, as groups of modern individuals and as hierarchical structures. An atmosphere can change for no easily grasped reason.
Reports of intimidating behaviour, although rare, were increasing in Somerville. As Women’s Officer, I was increasingly aware that different groups in College felt either intimidated or unfairly implicated, and members were talking at cross purposes. Cases of harassment were being reported anonymously, making it difficult to take disciplinary action.
But action we needed to take, and the question as to how now reared its head. To tackle the issue, Somerville needed to simultaneously employ its hierarchical structures for disciplinary action, come together as a college and take a stand against harassment, and change the behaviour and attitude of individuals.
This became an issue of two questions: how do you tackle sexist behaviour, and how does a college acknowledge, condemn and tackle such issues? The Principal sent an email to the student body about the decrease in an atmosphere of tolerance, and we held a JCR meeting to condemn the actions, also donating £200 to Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre (OSARCC). The rugby team wrote an open letter following that meeting in support. And we received national press coverage, some of it unkind. I felt buoyed by the action of college students and leadership, but I couldn’t help but feel helpless. I was not sure whether these actions would convert into actual change. As Women’s Officer, I felt powerless. A failure.
Mostly I felt unspeakably sad that any of my peers had experienced harassment, as well as intensely furious that I was not sure how best to prevent such behaviour.
But soon after the JCR meeting, we received an email from OSARCC thanking the JCR for the donation and for the action College was taking to stand up and condemn sexual harassment. This email gave me the hope that we had taken a step in the right direction. Our Principal was also flooded with similar emails from alumni, students, fellows and acquaintances praising her for her actions. I by no means think that we hit upon a fail safe formula for implementing change in colleges.
Students are now asking questions, raising awareness, and thinking more carefully about how they act and speak. The atmosphere is changing simply by articulating the issues College is facing. I am sad that this seems to be required, given how difficult this must have been and continues to be for survivors for whom such awareness raising may be painful. I hope students will go about this process tactfully. Peer to peer conversation is a potent way to educate, to show support for survivors and also to make clear that harassment has a very human cost and will not be tolerated. It is difficult for a college to change. It is difficult to scrutinise yourself when you are a body made up of over 400 individuals. Ultimately, it is bloody difficult to fight sexism.
Somerville is beginning a process of evaluation and change. I have faith that we will deal with these issues with compassion and sympathy. I am proud of the individuals who have led the campaign over the last few terms to tackle this behaviour and especially admiring of the welfare and decanal team. And I am proud of the historical character of Somerville as a college which has traditionally pioneered women’s rights. I’m proud that, as a united front and as a college community, we faced harassment head on. It’s only in this way can we learn how to implement change, target unacceptable individual behaviour, work together, and look after one another.