Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Heads of College face backlash from students over Vice-Chancellor’s letter

Over 240 students at St Anne’s and Hertford College have publicly expressed their disappointment with their Principals’ signing of the University’s statement responding to the encampment and pro-Palestine protests.

Helen King of St Anne’s College, Tom Fletcher of Hertford College, and Dame Helen Ghosh of Balliol College, were 3 of 13 senior members of staff to sign the letter. They were the only College Heads and representatives of the Conference of Colleges to sign. 

Balliol College JCR passed a motion on Sunday, condemning the University for responding to the protests with violence and intimidation. They expressed their “deep disappointment” with Helen Ghosh, Master of Balliol College and condemned her signing the University’s statement as an “attempt to ignore the college’s spirit.” 

They called upon Ghosh to “use her position to place pressure on the wider University administration to negotiate demands with OA4P” and released a statement condemning police action last Thursday. 

In an open letter, Hertford students described themselves as “ashamed” to see Tom Fletcher as a “named signatory”. Their letter notes a “lack of communication from Hertford to students and staff impacted by the events”. 

Hertford students expressed concern about those who experienced “police violence first-hand” and labelled this violence “a direct result of the University’s decision to call the police on its own students”.

Over 109 St Anne’s students and 133 Hertford students signed the open letters directed at their College Heads as of Monday at 4 pm. 

A student from St Anne’s College explained her disappointment with Helen King’s decision when “the student body of St Anne’s College has shown itself to be in support of Palestinians and the people of Palestine alongside the encampment”. 

In an email sent from Helen King to St Anne’s College members on Sunday morning, she described the encampment and the JCR adopting of OA4P’s language in motions of solidarity as “generating concern, fear and distress amongst a considerable proportion of Jewish members of St Anne’s.”

Helen King is the only Head of House on the University Finance Committee. She also chairs the University’s Security Subcommittee, which “oversees the management of security risks to the University’s staff and students”. A member of St Anne’s JCR claimed that Helen King is “not just signing as a college principal but as the principal responsible for keeping students safe”.

Helen King is also a former police officer who served as Assistant Commissioner for Professionalism with the Metropolitan Police before becoming the Principal of St Anne’s College.

A St Anne’s College student stressed that the Vice Chancellor’s statement is not “an accurate reflection of the events on Thursday” where “protestors remained peaceful throughout”. 

Thames Valley Police released a statement last Thursday which has been updated since, maintaining that the event was “a small peaceful protest in the city.” 

The University’s statement sent to all students and staff on Thursday night was in response to the protests outside both the University administrative offices in Wellington Square and the H B Allen Centre where the Conference of Colleges was held.

Police were called to the site after protestors entered and occupied the building. 16 protesters were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass, one additional person was arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass and affray. All 17 protesters were released without charges.

The statement sent to all students and staff described the protests as “violent action”, and accused them of creating an “intimidating environment”, particularly for the Jewish community at Oxford. 

Two weeks ago, St Anne’s College JCR and MCR passed motions in support of Palestine and OA4P’s “liberated zone” with an 85% majority. 

On May 16th, Hertford College JCR passed motions of solidarity and released a statement of solidarity following the press conference OA4P held at Clarendon Building and reiterated their demands to the University and Hertford College. 

Tom Fletcher encouraged Hertford students to “get in touch directly” to discuss matters further. He also proposed a “lunch” to “discuss the Middle East”. Helen King ended her email with a similar offer to talk to St Anne’s students “who wis[h] to do so”.

Last Thursday, the Principal of Somerville College, Jan Royall, also encouraged students to speak to her following an incident of police presence on site. Jan Royall had instructed police to leave Somerville after they had entered on an “ad hoc request” to set up a drone during the protests.

Reporting by Ruby Hurst and Valida Pau.

Image Credit: Cameron Samuel Keys

Image Description: University offices at Wellington Square