Students at Somerville College have expressed their “outrage” following reports of sexual harassment and threatening behaviour on campus.
Somerville Principal Alice Prochaska emailed students on Friday highlighting a number of incidents over previous months that have caused members of the College to feel “threatened, intimidated, or simply uncomfortable”.
Incidents included jokes about rape being overheard in the bar, reports of groping at bops, students being mocked for their sexuality, students heard making jokes approvingly about being arrested for assault, and even students being pressured to participate in sexual activity.
Prochaska stated that, whilst the behaviour appeared to be confined to a small minority of students, there had been a dramatic rise in such actions over the last few months, with reports being made “on a scale unprecedented” during her time as Principal. At Sunday’s JCR meeting, the Vice President informed students that “just in Hilary 2015, [reports of harassment] were higher than in the past six years combined.” Prochaska reiterated to students in her email that Somerville “will not tolerate any bullying, intimidation, violence or disrespect among members of Somerville”.
JCR President Shyamli Badgaiyan commented that the college was “a very open, accepting community: one that values tolerance and respect in all aspects of student life”.
Badgaiyan added: “Although very rare, these incidents of harassment and intimidation shocked many of us. I can confidently say that the vast majority of the student body deems them as absolutely unacceptable.”
At a JCR meeting on Sunday evening, Somerville students passed a motion condemning the alleged sexual harassment, and encouraged students to use the support networks in place at Somerville to report any further incidents. The JCR also made a donation of £200 to the Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre.
Srishti Nirula, Welfare Officer at Somerville, said that whilst the JCR and the principal were “outraged” by the incidents, they were “still heartened by the fact that the JCR meeting in which we put forward a motion condemning these actions was so well-attended and that the motion passed with no objections.
“The Welfare team in Somerville – from the decanal team, to Welfare Officers and peer supporters – have always tried our best to be there for Somerville students, and will continue to do so throughout our time in Oxford.”
One Somerville student commented that while the report was “truly shocking news” that needed to be dealt with “swiftly and decisively,” he worried about “the negative response generated by a select minority to both the Principal’s email and the JCR meeting”.
He said: “There have been borderline cases where certain drunken behaviors have been accused of contributing to the propagation of sexual harassment around college. It seems that the people involved, who are most likely innocent of any true misdemeanors, have felt the need to defend themselves, and are thus causing unnecessary conflict.
“I feel that they are missing the bigger picture, and are getting too caught up in debating superfluous details and specific events. At the same time, we must not make these people into pariahs. The most important thing is that the college stands together and that we support each other in these difficult times.”
JCR President Badgaiyan went on to say: “While it’s extremely sad that these incidents have occurred here, I believe it is a symptom of a wider, societal problem that needs to be addressed immediately. I am proud to be part of a college that has been working tirelessly to take a firm step in this direction, confronting the matter with honesty as well as extreme sensitivity”.
This itself is the real Somerville culture- not our immunity from these rare instances, but our ability to stand up and face them with courage and solidarity.”
Photo: Philip Allfrey