“Nepotism is not a substitute for friendship”: Union Access Officer resigns amid controversial appointments

An Oxford Union Access Officer, Beth Chamberlain, resigned her position on 12 July, condemning the society as “full of pseudo-politicos and sycophants” and having been left feeling “abused and taken advantage of” by colleagues and friends on committee in her letter of resignation, obtained by The Oxford Student. To read her full letter, click here.

In her letter, Chamberlain denounces a culture of “nepotism”. Having reviewed the circumstances of a number of appointments made to the Union’s committee for the upcoming term, The Oxford Student has discovered cases of appointed positions being given to defeated and, in one case, disqualified candidates from a slate supported by the current president, with applicants without links to Union politics overlooked in favour of individuals who did not even apply for the roles they now hold, possibly against Union rules.

The letter describes how, over the course of her involvement in the Union, Chamberlain felt she was “persuaded and influenced by the narrative of a ‘good versus evil’ dynamic within the Union”, trusting and supporting friends and colleagues and aligning herself with them in what she terms a “dangerous and unnecessary divide”. During this time, she had been a candidate for the Standing Committee in the Hilary term elections on current president Brendan McGrath’s ‘Together’ slate, who campaigned on fighting what he termed the “toxic politics” embodied by the behaviour of his opponents on ex-treasurer James Lamming’s ‘Engage’ slate.

During the following term, in a new position as Secretary to the Consultative Committee, her friendships with these individuals had “proven themselves to be no such thing”, which she believed stemmed from her refusal to pick a side in the following term’s elections, leaving her “feeling ignored and isolated”. All of the ‘Together’ candidates who ran on in the Trinity election did so as members of then-Librarian Sara Dube’s ‘RISE’ slate, including Lee Chin Wee (candidate for Secretary), Beatrice Barr (for Treasurer), and Ayman D’Souza (for Librarian, but who nominated mistakenly for Treasurer), as well as a number of others.

She goes on to refer to a lack of apology for how she was treated and a lack of any explanation for the behaviours exposed “following the results of the tribunals” after last term’s election, in which two RISE candidates, Lee and D’Souza, were disqualified for forgery and publishing unscrutinised public campaign materials respectively. McGrath himself was named in the forgery complaint against Lee, but the tribunal subsequently found there was insufficient evidence to prove his involvement and ruled that there was no case to answer against him.

Finally, Chamberlain notes that what she received in lieu of an apology or explanation from her former friends was “a favour in the form of an appointed position”, that of junior Access Officer. She was given this position without interview, and subsequently felt that her experience of the Union and the circumstances of her appointment made her wish to resign.

Chamberlain’s allegations about nepotism are echoed by a number of controversial appointments made by McGrath following the elections, with defeated RISE candidates up and down the ballot given positions in spite of their election losses. The Oxford Student understands that McGrath was a strong supporter of the slate during the election.

After losing his election, Treasurer candidate Ayman D’Souza was appointed to the senior logistics position of Director of Operations. In its ruling the election tribunal that went on to disqualify him explicitly banned D’Souza from holding office in the society for three terms as punishment – the tribunal panel was forced to issue a clarification that this ruling referred to appointed as well as elected positions before McGrath withdrew his decision to appoint D’Souza.

At the time of D’Souza’s appointment, McGrath also appointed unsuccessful RISE candidates for the Standing Committee Liam Willis and Nils Lovegren to the positions of LGBTQIA+ Officer and International Officer respectively. As they were candidates for election, The Oxford Student understands it is highly unlikely that they either applied or were interviewed for these roles. The Oxford Student also understands that a number of ordinary members applied and were interviewed for these positions before the election.

After D’Souza’s appointment was annulled, Lovegren was subsequently promoted to the position of Director of Operations. According to draft minutes of the Union’s Standing Committee in 9th week of last term, McGrath himself said that he did not think Lovegren had applied for his position.

Shortly afterwards, on 3 July, Union members received an email advertising the now-vacant position of International Officer. Appointed to the vacancy was Rita Kimijima-Dennemeyer, an unsuccessful candidate for the Secretary’s Committee and also a member of the RISE slate.

The Oxford Student has also spoken to another unsuccessful candidate, Ali Arsalan Pasha Siddiqui, who had run for the Standing Committee on the defeated ‘Unlock the Union’ slate. Before deciding to stand in the elections, he had applied for and been offered the role of Graduate Officer by McGrath. After his decision to run, Siddiqui told The Oxford Student that McGrath informed him that Dube was very upset by his choosing to run with a slate opposed to hers, and that he himself was “not keen” on offering appointed positions to individuals running for election, withdrawing the offer. Like Willis and Lovegren, Siddiqui subsequently lost his election, but unlike them was not considered for the post after his defeat, despite having applied for and previously been offered it.

No defeated candidate in the Trinity elections from the Unlock the Union or ‘2020 Vision’ slates, the latter led by then-treasurer Charlie Coverman, was appointed to a position by McGrath.

Applications for joining the appointed committee closed on 1 June, almost two weeks before the election on 14 June. Interviews took place the following week. Appointments are made solely by the president, subject to ratification by the Union’s Standing Committee. According to the Union’s rules, appointed officials should only be selected from interviewed candidates. Unsuccessful candidates may be appointed to positions, but only if they had applied and been interviewed for their position before the application deadline. If Lovegren and Willis did not apply before the deadline, as seems likely, their appointments would be invalid and McGrath himself potentially guilty of a disciplinary offence.

A well-informed Union insider familiar with the society’s rules said of the potential for disciplinary action: “If the evidence against Mr McGrath is as strong as purported, then he is at risk of being in serious breach of the Society’s rules. Any senior disciplinary body would doubtless take an extremely dim view of a President so blatantly abusing his office to benefit his friends. The suggestion that ratifications were made without any due process are particularly concerning.”

Asked for comment on her letter, Chamberlain told The Oxford Student: “Although this is the term in which I have chosen to resign, it is by no means the only term in which problems of nepotism have been prevalent; it seems that this has been a systemic problem for years, and one that candidates routinely pledge to change for the sake of accumulating votes, or recruiting fellow electoral candidates onto a slate. I hope my naïvety over the past year can act as a lesson to others, if nothing else.”

The Oxford Student asked McGrath for comment, and requested details on how many people applied for and were interviewed for the positions given to unsuccessful candidates, and whether they themselves had applied for these positions. McGrath declined these requests.

Image credit: Barker Evans