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Balliol students demand College admits failures and implements reforms

Pieter Garicano reports on the continuing fallout from an Al Jazeera investigation into inappropriate behaviour by staff at Oxford University.

Three Balliol students have launched a campaign against sexual violence, organising an open letter and protest aimed at ending a “culture of enabling and impunity” at Balliol College.

Emilia Bedingfield, Clara Holcroft and Fiónn McFadden – who is also a columnist for Cherwell –  started a movement aimed at ending a culture of sexual violence and reforming what they see as a hopelessly outdated and ineffective welfare system at Balliol College. This comes following reports by Al-Jazeera of years of inappropriate behaviour by Oxford Professors, and the mishandling by the college of a student who came forward to report sexual violence.

The three second-years launched the open letter on Monday. They have accumulated over two hundred signatures in the first twenty-four hours and the support of many of the largest student organisations aimed at fighting sexual violence, including Womcam and It Happens Here. It can also count on the support of the Balliol College JCR and Anvee Bhutani, the SU president.

Clara told this paper that “the one thing we haven’t heard is a surprise. We hear recognition, gratitude, I’m so glad you are doing this and ideas of how others can get involved”

The College first reported on the allegations in the Master’s weekly message on Friday, which arrived to students via the JCR President. Buried in the email, the Master makes vague allusions to safety, welfare and disciplinary procedures.

The allegations against the college involve both allegations of inappropriate behaviour by a tutor and the neglect and maltreatment of a student who came to the college after a sexual assault. Both of these events were extensively covered in the Al-Jazeera investigation “Degrees of Abuse”.

Beyond these failures, the students also criticise the general culture that they say has allowed this level of impunity to develop. Bruce Kinsey, head of Welfare, who the students say has been previously criticised for not being receptive to calls for changes and not accepting of victims of sexual assault, was singled out again in the Al-Jazeera video for allegedly telling a victim of sexual assault that “she had to be wary of the effect she had on men” and that she was very physically attractive. 

The students behind the open letter criticised the fact that the college was still heavily promoting his activities. More generally, they hoped that the welfare system would be reformed. Emilia told Cherwell that “if his role is not completely diminished, we hope that it is split up … ideally we want to see a wider restructuring of the role”.

Reverend Kinsey told Cherwell that “Due to the confidential nature of my conversations with students, I am not able to comment in detail. Nevertheless, I would like to clarify a couple of details. Over several years, I have spoken to the student in question about a variety of matters, most of them not pertaining to these allegations. My comments concerning these other matters have been conflated and misapplied here.”

More broadly, the students demand in the open letter that the college “holds the appropriate people accountable”, admits failure in its handling of these cases and “reviews all cases of this nature over the last three years”. They told Cherwell that much of the vagueness in the demands was intentional, as they were critical of the fact that the College placed the onus on students to come forward and propose reforms, rather than that they realised the scope of the problem and offered to change.

Balliol College told Cherwell that “Balliol College takes the safety of its students extremely seriously, including any allegations of sexual abuse or harassment.  Our policies and processes for investigation in these kind of cases reflect current national guidelines, and we are always very mindful of the need to give the necessary support to the students involved to protect their mental and physical safety.  We are of course aware of the concerns expressed by some of our student body in the wake of the Al Jazeera allegations, and will be discussing with them how those concerns might be met.”

The students intend to hand the open letter to Dame Helen Ghosh, Master of the College, on Monday of Week 5. They are also organising a protest on Sunday at 1 PM, outside Balliol College, although they request that everyone who intends on coming ensures they do not violate any College regulations.

Image credit: Clara Holcroft – Balliol Community for Safety

This article was corrected at 16:43 on November 3rd to remove a sentence which claimed that a fellow of Balliol College was named in the Al Jazeera investigation.

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