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Benet’s students "emotionally blackmailed" by Master

Students at St Benet’s Hall have claimed that they were “emotionally blackmailed” by the Master of the Permanent Private Hall (PPH) to cancel an emergency JCR meeting called to discuss a boycott of a student dinner to which HRH Princess Michael of Kent had been invited to attend.

St Benet’s Hall host a ‘common table’, where the Master, fellows of the PPH, the six Benedictine monks who reside in the Hall, and both graduate and undergraduate students eat together and have discussions.

HRH Princess Michael of Kent was invited by the Master, Professor Werner Jeanrond, to attend one such pre-paid dinner in St Benet’s Hall. However, students had spoken out against this invitation, as, according to one undergraduate at the PPH who wished to remain anonymous, “[HRH Princess Michael] has a history of publicly expressing appallingly racist, classist, and elitist views”.

The JCR called an emergency meeting to be held last Friday, where they planned to discuss a boycott of the dinner in protest against the PPH’s association with Princess Michael and to write and issue a statement clarifying the JCR’s opposition to her attending the dinner. This was intended to distance the undergraduate community at St Benet’s from the remarks Princess Michael has made on record about BME individuals.

However, before the emergency meeting was to take place on Friday evening, Professor Jeanrond allegedly threatened both his resignation, and the loss of the new building necessary for the admission of female undergraduates in future years, if it went ahead. The emergency meeting was subsequently cancelled.

A St Benet’s student, who wished to remain unnamed, explained, “The Master has informed us that if we are to speak out we will lose our new building and he will have to resign. We don’t believe that to be true. The Master said the Hall would lose all of its funding, we’d lose the new building, so women would be off the agenda, he’d have to resign, and Benet’s would have to shut down.”

Speaking on the day of the planned emergency meeting prior to its cancellation, one St Benet’s JCR member told Cherwell, “We feel that this [the meeting and its aims] is of significance because, due to some members of the Hall making it clear that [they] felt unwelcome and ill-fitted to the atmosphere of the Hall, we have recently (in a very controversial JCR meeting) instituted a BME position on the JCR committee.”

The student continued, “Furthermore, a significant majority of the JCR also want to move Benet’s towards being more progressive; we believe this move [inviting HRH Princess Michael to the PPH] significantly contradicts the Master’s publicly aired views, leading him open to accusations of hypocrisy, as he is reinforcing the toxic elitist image of St Benet’s, which so many of us who care about the image of the Hall want to address.”

Professor Jeanrond told Cherwell, “St Benet’s Hall prides itself for its hospitality at its common table. Every Tuesday evening in term time students and fellows suggest guest speakers from very different parts of society and culture to address our table for approximately ten minutes. A member of our JCR has suggested we invite HRH Princess Michael of Kent, an invitation which the Hall has supported.

“No member of the Hall has ever been coerced into dining. The decision on the admission of female undergraduate students to the Hall is entirely unrelated.”

The dinner to which HRH Princess Michael was invited as the Hall’s guest took place last Tuesday. Students were not allowed to bring phones or cameras into the hall, and security was hired for the evening.

Another controversial guest, Cardinal Raymond Burke, was welcomed to St Benet’s Hall on 28th May. Cardinal Burke’s attendance caused further anger amongst St Benet’s students, due to alleged homophobic comments he had made prior to his visit. Cardinal Burke was removed from the Vatican committee in 2013 for his “anti-gay” values, and in 2014 he claimed that children should not be exposed to same-sex couples.

Buckingham Palace declined Cherwell’s request for comment.

A member of St Benet’s JCR further explained to Cherwell why he believes the invited speakers to be problematic, commenting, “The Hall lobbied the University to remove the PPH opt out from the University admissions process, which probably means they should be more open to the greater diversity of students they’re going to get now people can’t elect not to be considered by a PPH.

“They said it created a bad impression. When you applied to Oxford, you used to get an email asking if you wanted to opt out of being considered by any PPHs.

“If the Hall campaigned to have the opt out removed so people could no longer chose not to be considered by a religious hall then they should have taken into account that people who would have previously opted out, for example gay people uncomfortable at the thought of attending a conservative Roman Catholic institution, would end up attending the Hall, and so should have made moves to provide welfare and a more inclusive atmosphere.”

St Benet’s has made steps towards becoming more inclusive, with a board of trustees of the PPH voting unanimously on Thursday to formally confirm the decision to admit female undergraduate students for the academic year 2016 to 2017.

Currently, St Benet’s has female graduate students, but no female undergraduates, as the six Benedictine monks that live and work in the Hall are not permitted to live with women. St Benet’s is the last PPH or College at Oxford that is not co-educational.

Professor Jeanrond commented on the future admission of female undergraduates, “This vote means the happy end of a process. Last year the St Benet’s Trust decided to admit female graduate students, and we were delighted to welcome the first female graduate student doing an MSt course in Jewish Studies last October.

“The reason why we are deciding now to admit undergraduate students has to do with our success in identifying a second building for St Benet’s. Our main site at St Giles houses a Benedictine community of monks. Therefore, the house offers male accommodation only.

“The new house offered to us to buy by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in Norham Gardens would allow us to accommodate both male and female students. I am very happy indeed that we now have the opportunity to transform St Benet’s into a coed college community within the Benedictine educational spirit. And I am encouraging female students interested in the subjects we teach to apply now for admission in October 2016.

“My colleagues in Ampleforth Abbey, at St Benet’s Hall and I are actively engaged in fundraising to secure the funds for the acquisition of this new building. We hope to move into the new site already in October 2015.”

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