Somerville JCR debates merits of women-only principals

The JCR will hold an open motion on the issue before their next principal is selected this year

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Somerville College JCR is discussing whether gender should be taken into account in the selection of the next principal.

Dr Alice Prochaska, Somerville’s current principal, announced in October 2016 that she will be stepping down after a seven-year term at the end of the academic year. The college is due to announce her successor some time this year.

Alex Crichton-Miller, president of the Somerville JCR, told Cherwell: “Given that there are several colleges in Oxford that have only ever been led by men, there were some mem- bers of the Common Room who felt strongly that Somerville ought to continue to have a female principal.

“This point was made, clearly, on the basis that the proposed female candidate possesses all other required qualities for the leadership role.

“Others held the view that it would be unjustified to discriminate on the basis of the candidate’s gender, even in the case of positive action.”

Of the 38 Oxford colleges, only nine of them (or 24 per cent)—Green Templeton, Mansfield, Oriel, Pembroke, St Anthony’s, St Hugh’s, St John’s, Somerville, and Wolfson—currently have female heads of colleges.

Somerville, a women’s college until 1994, became the only college in Oxford that has only had female leadership when St Hilda’s appointed its first male principal in 2014.

It is unclear what role the JCR discussion will play in the formal selection of the next principal.

Sarah Hughes, communications officer at Somerville, said: “A college with a history such as ours is very alive to gender issues, and it is appropriate that students also seriously reflect on them.Their views will be reported and taken into account by the Governing Body, in whose hands the final decision entirely lies.”

Whilst positive action is lawful under the Equality Act, Somerville’s Equality and Diversity Policy states: “In respect of staff, ensure that entry into employment and progression within employment are determined solely by criteria which are related to the duties of a particular post.”

In December 2016, released National Archive files revealed Margaret Thatcher’s attempt to fight the admission of male fellows at her alma mater, Somerville. This resistance came at odds with directives of the European Commission’s equality legislation.

Dr Prochaska is also a vocal critic of sexual harassment and rape culture at Oxford. She has penned a column in The Guardian on fighting “sexist laddism and abuse” at Somer- ville, and has prompted a JCR resolution to condemn aggressive behaviour in college.

The JCR’s motion to hold an open discussion was passed. No vote was conducted at the end of the meeting to indicate the JCR’s stance on the appointment of a candidate on the basis of gender.

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