A poster put up in Murray Edwards’ bar last week says “Oxsham”

Murray Edwards’ JCR committee voted on Sunday evening to endorse a statement condemning the College president, Barbara Stocking, for her handling of the Oxfam scandal.

It is the first public display of tensions within the college, in the aftermath of an investigation by The Times which alleged that Stocking was involved in the cover-up of sexual misconduct by senior aid workers in Chad and Haiti during her time as CEO of Oxfam.

The statement, written by the BME officer, women’s officer, and communications officer of Murray Edwards College Student Union (MECSU), called into question “the viability of protecting students’ welfare, particularly that of BME students, while Dame Barbara continues to act as college President.” It was emailed to all Murray Edwards student this morning.

The statement demands a “formal apology from the college for being too hasty to express their support for Dame Barbara, for failing to consult the opinion of members of the college first, and for implying in statements to the press that the student body is universally supportive.”

It says: “After all, it is we, the students, who are Murray Edwards College, not the President. Finally, we call for a dialogue about whether these processes of rebuilding trust can take place while Dame Barbara Stocking remains our President. The situation as it stands now is unconscionable. We know that many BME students and survivors and victims of sexual abuse are finding it impossible to feel safe in college. Murray Edwards must seriously address what can and should be done to redress the harm that has been caused.”

In full MECSU’s statement

Murray Edwards JCR, on behalf of members of the undergraduate body, wish to express our disappointment with Dame Barbara Stocking's response to the recent allegations regarding her role in the cover up of sexual exploitation in Haiti while CEO of Oxfam. Her conduct has seriously called into question the viability of protecting students’ welfare, particularly that of BME students, while Dame Barbara continues to act as college President.

In an open meeting with students held on 13th February to discuss allegations against her, Dame Barbara spoke about sexual exploitation in a dismissive manner, presenting it as an inevitability in a ‘disaster zone’ and comparing it to crimes such as fraud. Students have also been dismayed by Dame Barbara’s demeanour during appearances on national television, with her smirking and smiling while discussing serious allegations signalling a complete lack of regard for the victims of sexual exploitation. We know there are survivors and victims of sexual assault in college. Such a cavalier attitude to sexual assault is an affront to the experiences of these students. Students have raised serious concerns about the possibility of maintaining a relationship of trust between staff and students while staff with responsibility for student welfare continue to stand by Dame Barbara as President. Some students have told us they have no confidence in College’s commitment to advocating for them if they themselves were to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against senior staff.

It is crucial to recognise how BME students in particular have been alienated by Dame Barbara’s conduct. In the open meeting mentioned above, Dame Barbara used racially charged language, constructing Haiti as an uncivilised nation, stating that ‘these things happen’ in places ‘where there is no rule of law’, moving the burden of responsibility for sexual exploitation away from its white western perpetrators. The President of Haiti himself has contested this racialised narrative, stating that Dame Barbara’s suggestion that crimes were not reported because nothing would be done about them 'is really an insult to my country because you are working in a place and country which is not a forest’. For the first half of the twentieth century, the diagnosis of white colonialists with ‘tropical neurasthenia’ served as a powerful explanatory tool, putting the failures of the supposedly civilising project of Empire down to the local climate and population. Echoes of this colonial narrative are evident in the language Dame Barbara has used to address the behaviour of Oxfam employees in Haiti.

That the President of our college has conducted herself in such a manner has been an extremely alienating experience for BME students in college. Numerous BME students have contacted the JCR to express the distress and concern that Dame Barbara’s conduct has caused them. It is important to remember that Murray Edwards is not just an educational institution, but students’ home in Cambridge for the the duration of our degrees. Unfortunately, Dame Barbara’s conduct has had a serious impact on students’ ability to feel at home in college, where we must brush up against her in corridors and dining spaces every day. We believe Dame Barbara's lack of regard for black women’s lives in Haiti is impossible to disentangle from her conduct in college and the welfare of BME students. This incident has highlighted an ongoing problem of racist microaggressions experienced by students in encounters with Dame Barbara over several years. Such microaggressions form part of the wider experience of BME students in Cambridge, who face institutional racism on a daily basis. College’s inaction in dealing with this issue is a prime example of how Cambridge institutions work to facilitate what Dr Priyamvada Gopal has recently referred to as the 'genteel liberal racism that is the very lifeblood of Cambridge social intercourse’.

For college to rebuild trust with students, there must be recognition of our grievances. A serious conversation about how race affects the experience of students in college must take place, led by BME students. College must reaffirm its dedication to taking sexual assault seriously and its commitment to survivors and victims over abusers who occupy positions of power. The JCR is asking for a formal apology from the college for being too hasty to express their support for Dame Barbara, for failing to consult the opinion of members of the college first, and for implying in statements to the press that the student body is universally supportive. After all, it is we, the students, who are Murray Edwards College, not the President. Finally, we call for a dialogue about whether these processes of rebuilding trust can take place while Dame Barbara Stocking remains our President. The situation as it stands now is unconscionable. We know that many BME students and survivors and victims of sexual abuse are finding it impossible to feel safe in college. Murray Edwards must seriously address what can and should be done to redress the harm that has been caused.

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The JCR decided to hold a meeting more than two weeks after the accusations against Stocking came to light, to discuss the allegations regarding her time at Oxfam, and how Stocking and the College had handled. Ahead of the meeting, held on Sunday evening, they gathered feedback from students.

Despite the accusations levelled against her, Murray Edwards have been clear in their support of Stocking, with a spokesperson for the College initially telling Varsity that the accusations of a cover-up were “untrue” and they were of “no relevance whatsoever for Barbara Stocking’s current role as President of Murray Edwards College.”

Dame Barbara Stocking, president of Murray Edwards, in 2012WEF

The College held an open meeting on the 13th February, in which students were given the opportunity to ask questions directly to Stocking. MECSU’s statement says Stocking “spoke about sexual exploitation in a dismissive manner, presenting it as an inevitability in a ‘disaster zone’ and comparing it to crimes such as fraud”.

In an email disseminating the statement on behalf of the JCR committee, MECSU president Miranda Nicholson said: “Many of you will be aware of the allegations that have recently been made against Oxfam and Dame Barbara Stocking while she was CEO there.

“After gathering testimony from students, the JCR has produced a statement expressing our dissatisfaction with the response from Dame Barbara and her conduct in college since the allegations arose. The JCR understand that these allegations and the way Dame Barbara has spoken about them has particularly impacted the wellbeing of BME students and survivors of sexual abuse in college, which the statement, put together by our Women’s and BME Officers and approved by the committee, reflects. You can read about student grievances and what we are asking college to do in the attached statements.”

The senior tutor of Murray Edwards, Dr Juliet Foster, was shown a copy of MECSU’s full statement last night. In an email to all the College’s students this morning, sent ahead of MECSU’s statement being circulated, Foster apologised for not communicating with students enough.

“The events of the past two weeks related to Oxfam have been fast-moving,” she said. “Students have asked for more information, and more communication about this, and I completely agree that this is needed. I’m sorry that I have not communicated directly with you as our students more, and I plan to do this over the coming weeks, involving MECSU and the MCR in this process.”


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Foster promised to hold a meeting this week alongside the deputy senior tutor, saying: “Please be assured that we want to hear what you have to say, and want to find ways in which we can work to address the many significant issues that are being raised here. As a start, I would like to hold an informal open meeting that focuses on important questions of race and ethnicity in some depth.”

Speaking to Varsity before the vote, a first-year student at Murray Edwards said: “I don’t feel that the atmosphere of criticism around Barbara has been harsh enough. I think if she’d been involved in covering up or protecting the identity of men responsible for abusing and exploiting Cambridge students, people would be acting differently.”

“If Dame Barbara has been involved in protecting the identity of abusers, she must be held accountable. I hope that the process of accountability is sufficiently harsh that it might push her to either step down or put the necessary effort in to compensate for the mistakes she made in Oxfam by working to make Cambridge a safer place for survivors, for poorer students, and for women of colour.”

In a statement to Varsity on Monday, a spokesperson for Murray Edwards said: “We understand how strongly our students feel. We support their right to share their views and are committed to listening and engaging with them. The College Council is deeply concerned about the issues raised by the students. We have held meetings with students and plan more. We will maintain this dialogue.

“The College Council continues actively to monitor the developing situation. Murray Edwards College is determined to maintain its focus on challenging gender inequality in the world.”

Earlier this term, Stocking cancelled her scheduled appearance at the Cambridge Union due to “considerable media attention”.

The scandal provoked an online clash between two Cambridge academics, professor Mary Beard and Dr Priyamvada Gopal, after Gopal accused the former of “patrician white feminism” for a tweet in which Beard appeared to encourage consideration of the context in which alleged abuses by aid workers occurred.

MECSU did not immediately respond to a request for comment

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