University Pro VC speaks out against SU’s Union boycott

In what is a significant move, Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Martin Williams has intervened against the SU’s boycott of the Oxford Union.

In a letter to the Telegraph, Williams stated that students must be “prepared to encounter and confront difficult views, including ones they find unsettling, extreme or even offensive”. In the letter, Williams also stated that the SU’s initial boycott of the Union will not go ahead, with the SU’s trustees responsible for the intervention.

He said: “Students should be free to decide whether to join a society or club. While we understand there are concerns held by the Student Union about the Oxford Union, the university is actively encouraging the two organisations to discuss the issues.”

These remarks follow earlier comments to The Telegraph, where the University came out against content warnings in medieval texts.

The Oxford Union will have a stall at the freshers’ fair, but this will not be a commercial stall. Previous reporting by The Oxford Student highlighted that the prospective boycott could pose a significant risk to the Union’s finances, with the Union generating more than £600,000 from new memberships last year alone.

The intervention follows a letter sent to The Telegraph by over 40 senior academics, including Prof. Richard Dawkins and Prof. Nigel Biggar. Dawkins has also since shared a tweet encouraging current students to sign the letter as well to protect free speech at the University.

Williams added in his letter: “Despite what some may have been led to believe, freedom of speech and expression is alive and well at Oxford.”

Despite the national controversy from the boycott, the SU has insisted that national reporting finding a link between the boycott of the Union “erroneously conflates” the reasons behind the initial motion to boycott the society. 

This is one of the largest feuds that has erupted between the University and its students in modern history. It also follows a pattern of free-speech rows, from the pro-life society stall controversy in 2022, to the no platforming of former Home Secretary Amber Rudd in 2020.

Amiad Haran Diman, President of the OULGBTQ+ Society, stated: “Freedom of speech is not equal to a necessity to platform any transphobic speaker, or a duty to work with harmful, exclusionary institutions. The University’s decision to force the student council to reverse its decision to disaffiliate with the Oxford Union is severely misguided, undemocratic, and one-sided. This puts into question the freedom and autonomy of the SU’s bodies, whose ability to campaign effectively and represent the views of students is gone.”

A spokesperson for the SU commented that the “Oxford Union will not be allowed to have a commercial stall”, in line with the motion that would boycott the Union. However, the spokesperson stated that “per our internal policy and our agreement with the University, the permission to hold Freshers’ fair on university property requires that all student societies have the right to apply for student society stalls at Fresher’s Fair”.

On this instance, the “University informed [the SU] that they would recognise the Oxford Union as a student society”.

The spokesperson also stated that it the move set a “concerning precedent” and that it would “undermine concerns that students have raised and democratically affirmed regarding issues such as forms of harassment and bullying”.

They also added that this “is not a matter concerning free speech”, and that students wanted to “ensure thet [Union] took tangible actions to resolve […] concerns”. The spokesperson also added that elected sabbatical officers had written to the Union last week to recommend actions to address student concerns.

The University and the Oxford Union declined to comment further.

Image credit: Kim Elliott