Anybody visiting Jesus College could be forgiven for thinking that a beloved tutor has passed away, given the black armbands the students are wearing this week, but they are mourning something far more tragic: the death of fun.
New Senior Tutor Dr. Alex Lumbers has set about putting the final nails in the coffin of levity at the College since her appointment in May 2009 by attempting to ban Freshers’ Week events, imposing extra penal collections and starting a drive to be more “Merton-esque”, in the words of one shocked student.
Jesus were 10th in the Norrington table last year, well below second-placed Merton. Merton has previously been described in an OUSU handbook as “the place where fun goes to die”, and Jesus students are hoping there college will not gain the same reputation.
In a show of defiance towards the draconian rules, Jesus’ JCR passed a motion last Monday stating that black armbands were to be handed out this week and worn as a form of protest, symbolizing students mourning the “death of fun” at the College.
Students interviewed at Jesus were too terrified of retribution from Lumbers to allow their names to be printed, but were vocal in their dismay at the change in a college once billed as “the most relaxed and friendly” in Oxford.
Instead of that traditional atmosphere, new freshers were urged by Lumbers to “work at least 40 hours a week” and were “warned of the dangers of not keeping up academic standards” in mandatory meetings held face-to-face between the Senior Tutor and every new student.
The meetings replaced the traditional informal chat that each new student has with the College chaplain – who also doubles as the welfare officer- which has “annoyed the JCR welfare team”.
The signs of Lumbers’ new attitude for the College are evident even in the Jesus website, where its “relaxed and friendly atmosphere”, is now no longer mentioned, despite once being a key point in promoting the College.
“That image was the reason why many current students applied here, but this was recently removed from all prospectuses and websites as the College sought to make its image more serious and academic”, commented one fearful student.
Another distraught fresher described how the traditional “Babies’ Weekend” was “cruelly snatched away”.
The “Babies’ Weekend” is a pre-Freshers’ Week event when new first years come to meet the second years and see Oxford’s social life.
Senior College officials wanted to cancel it completely, but it was saved thanks to the efforts of former JCR president Ross Evans- who later stood down in unrelated circumstances- albeit with a painful compromise: the event was alcohol-free.
“It’s an event where second-year students welcome freshers to Jesus by giving them a taste of Oxford’s social life,” said one student, “but the college tried to sacrifice that to show the new students that they have to work hard. Lumbers finally compromised, but she still decreed ‘no alcohol permitted’ at the event.”
Students also say Lumber is “cracking down” on the annual Turl Street Dash, a bicycle race around Oxford in Hilary Term between the Turl Street colleges.
The JCR motion noted that before Lumber instigated reforms, “Jesus College used to be a place of joy, laughter and above all, lots and lots of fun”, and that “during this period academic standards were maintained to the usual high standards expected by the university”.
The more senior undergraduates have been very aware of the change in attitude that Jesus is undergoing.
The freshers’ committee noticed the malaise spreading through the new first year students, with one committee member noting a “chronic lack of participation among the new students in the freshers week activities.”
“Normally we are able to get 6 or 7 novice rowing crews from the first year, for example”, said Ben Ruddle of the freshers’ committee, “but this year the number’s only been 4.”
He continued: “There is a widespread feeling that this lack of participation is due to the attitude of certain members of college staff during freshers’ week, as part of a wider campaign by the Principal and Senior Tutor, in particular, to improve the academic performance of the college.”
The drive by the College to be more known for academia rather than fun has led to an increase in penal and special collections.
“It is believed that anything below a 2:1 in exams is considered sub-standard by the College now,” said Ruddles.
Lumbers responded to the accusations by saying that the College was “responding to a University recommendation to review discipline procedures to ensure that they are fair and transparent”.
Whether the new attitude at Jesus is a cruel act to break students’ spirits or merely to “ensure consistency and transparency”, as Lumbers puts it, one thing is certain: it’s about as lively as a graveyard.