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Two Oxford professors named in investigation into sexual harassment and drunken behaviour

Matilda Gettins and Irene Zhang report on the findings of an Al Jazeera investigation into how British universities have dealt with complaints of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour concerning staff.

CW: sexual harassment, verbal abuse, antisemitism, and offensive language.

Al Jazeera investigations say that two Oxford professors have abused their authority with sexist and drunken conduct, and that relevant University and College institutions were dismissive of the behaviour.

Three women, now respected academics and professors themselves, share stories about Anglo Saxon Professor Andy Orchard. Orchard is now Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford and Fellow at Pembroke College, but the stories date from his time teaching at Cambridge and Toronto Universities as well. 

Fine Arts Professor Catherine Karkov tells Al Jazeera that when at Cambridge, “he was drunk many times for meetings”. She describes his “personal reputation” as that of “an alcoholic and a sexual predator”. English Literature Professor Ananya Kabir says that a fellow PhD student at Cambridge, who was in a sexual relationship with Orchard, was terrified of the consequences if she ended it.  Both Kabir and Karkov say that they reported concerns about Orchard’s drinking and affair to senior academics, but that Cambridge University took no action.

Professor Alex Gillespie, now Vice President at the University of Toronto Mississauga, shares her experience with Orchard from his time in Canada, saying that during one interaction he “seemed very drunk”, “cornered” her on a staircase, and then sexualised the situation by saying “I’m going to fire one last shot of testosterone across your bow”.  

Gillespie believes Orchard was aggressive to her because her work in feminist and queer medieval studies threatened his academic work, telling Al Jazeera that “I remember him saying, ‘You are part of a queer, feminist, (I believe he also said) Jewish conspiracy to overthrow the study of Latin and philology at the University of Toronto, and to destroy my legacy in the study of Old English. But I’m not going to let that happen; I am going to destroy you.'” 

She did not speak out then, but now tells Al Jazeera “I no longer want to be complicit in this damaging silence”.

Orchard has disputed Al Jazeera’s findings when contacted for comment. His lawyers tell Cherwell that Orchard “denies these allegations and will co-operate fully with the university in any enquiry it wishes to make.”

Al Jazeera’s investigation also reports on the behavior of American History Professor Peter Thompson. Thompson is currently Sydney L. Mayer Associate Professor of American History at Oxford and affiliated with St Cross College.

According to the podcast, in 2017 members of the History Faculty complained that Thompson was unfit to teach.  Former student Mia Liyanage, who received tuition from Thompson while studying for her MSt at Oxford, described him as drunk and of being physically inappropriate with female students. Liyanage complained directly to the University and tells Cherwell that its process is “completely unfit for purpose … [and] skewed to discourage survivors from speaking up, and to protect perpetrators.”

In 2020 a group of two students and five members of staff complained again. This time, the University of Oxford upheld the complaints of excessive alcohol consumption and sexual harassment. They did not say what action they were taking in order to protect Thompson’s confidentiality; unofficially, according to university administrators, Thompson’s defense was that as he suffered from a mental condition, drinking was necessary.

Liyanage believes that the measures taken were “piecemeal” and “casual”, telling Cherwell that “preventing Thompson from supervising female students and removing the presence of alcohol from seminars only partly mitigates behaviour. This, in turn, provides a reason for the status quo to be maintained.”

Thompson declined to comment when contacted by Al Jazeera and by Cherwell.

The University of Oxford declined to comment on individual cases, but states that it “​​takes all allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by staff extremely seriously. The University does not tolerate any form of harassment and is committed to promoting a positive environment where students and staff are treated fairly and with respect. All members of the University are expected to play a role in creating this environment and are always encouraged to raise any concerns or complaints. When concerns are raised, they are carefully and sensitively investigated and the University has a framework of support in place for staff and students who feel they have been subject to harassment. If complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct are upheld, the University will take disciplinary action where appropriate and will put in place steps aimed at ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our staff and students, which is always our first priority.”

The investigation is part of Al Jazeera’s Degrees of Abuse, a two-year investigation examining how top British universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Glasgow, deal with “complaints of sexual harassment, sexist, drunken behaviour, and coercive control” concerning members of staff. A podcast and video series depict the outcomes of  the investigation, revealing “how sexual misconduct by university staff and students has extensively affected the lives of women in academia.” More episodes about other cases are to follow.

St Cross College and Pembroke College have been contacted for comment.

Image: Siddarth Bhatia via unsplash.com

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