Jess O'Brien at a rally outside of Old Schools in early MarchRosie Bradbury

Jess O’Brien has resigned from the post of CUSU Disabled Students’ Officer (DSO) today, effective immediately.

O’Brien posted on Facebook their “regret” in announcing their resignation but that they felt “unable to continue in the role.”

O’Brien outlined how they have “struggled with some aspects of the job” and the feeling that they could “never relax or switch off.” They continued that “this got worse during the strikes and the election period. As someone with depression and anxiety, this was simply too much for me”.

They acknowledged they have “made mistakes” and that the role “is an incredibly high pressured and difficult job to undertake.”

The CUSU Disabled Students’ Officer is a full-time, paid sabbatical role, for which elections are held in March each year, along with elections for the other full-time positions on Cambridge’s student union. Having assumed their role in July 2019, O’Brien has been CUSU DSO for eight months.  

O’Brien highlighted some of the work they have done in their capacity as DSO, including creating and distributing the Disabled 101 Guide, a report on Medical Evidence and Funding, reforming the DSC constitution and standing orders, creating the position of Campaign Chair and a report on DRC underfunding.

O’Brien’s resignation comes in the wake of significant controversy around their conduct as DSO, and in their recent, unsuccessful run, for University Councillor (UC).

During their campaign for UC earlier this month, O’Brien was suspended for one day after the candidate for DSO, Kerensa Gaunt, made a formal complaint regarding O’Brien’s behaviour.

A Facebook account belonging to O’Brien had messaged student activist group Cambridge Zero Carbon during the campaigning season to encourage them to ’endorse RON (Re-Open Nominations) over Gaunt for the role of DSO.

Gaunt previously made a formal complaint alleging that O’Brien had shown “aggression...towards others in their paid sabbatical role” this year, and added that “this behaviour has been the subject of many reconciliatory attempts”, which have “proved impossible.”

Kerensa Gaunt was told by CUSU President Edward Parker Humphreys that “as this investigation was conducted under the Employee Disciplinary Procedure, I am unable to provide any further details about the outcome of this investigation for reasons of confidentiality.”

Gaunt had said at the time that “several committee members” of the Disabled Students Campaign (DSC) have “quit because of how they felt they had been treated” by O’Brien.

Aberdeen Powell and Emma Carey, two students on the DSC, told Varsity that they planned to resign from the Committee this term and that two other students have already resigned from the Committee this year. A third anonymous Committee member told Varsity at the time that they would quit if O’Brien did not resign from their role.


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Powell described the environment of the DSC this year as “inexcusable”. They added that Committee members often felt uncomfortable “confronting O’Brien”, who they said treated the DSC as a “secondary..extra bit of bureaucracy.”

O’Brien did not comment on the allegations at the time, saying, “as this has been subject to a formal complaint I am unable to share details of events. I believe I have always acted in a professional manner, and I am happy to accept and follow due process”.

At a ruling hearing on 28th April, led by former CUSU President Edward Parker Humphreys, O’Brien was found to have breached the University’s Code of Conduct in respect of Harassment and Sexual Misconduct. This was in relation to O’Brien’s conduct as a member of CUSU, rather than as an employed sabbatical officer.

Humphreys, following the definition of harassment as that which has the effect of ‘violating… [an] other’s dignity’ or ‘creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for that other’, wrote that O’Brien had breached this conduct in sharing ‘personal and sensitive information’ about Gaunt. O’Brien was suspended from CUSU activities for one month, until 29th May.

In a post on Facebook after the 28th April hearing, O’Brien explained that she had publicly shared an individual’s concerns about a disablist messaging which had been shared at another meeting. O’Brien wrote: “in the heat of the moment I wanted to make sure this member of staff did not get away with it, but I acknowledge this was the wrong decision to make”. O’Brien noted that she had apologised for this incident at the time that it occurred.

A previous controversy occurred in Michaelmas last year, surrounding O’Brien’s handling of the first wave of UCU strikes, in November. O’Brien issued a formal apology after publishing a statement passed by the DSC which urged students not to cross picket lines to access the Disability Resource Centre and University Counselling Service.

CUSU posted a resignation statement from O’Brien on their website today, thanking “Jess for all of their work this year.”

CUSU added that “CUSU Disabled Students Campaign will continue to be supported in their work for the rest of the academic year by CUSU staff and the CUSU sabbatical team.”

The next CUSU DSO, Kerensa Gaunt, will take up her post in July.

  • Updated, 27th March 2020: This article was edited to note that the disciplinary investigation into O'Brien’s conduct has concluded, and that no disciplinary action was publicly taken by CUSU as a result. 
  • Updated: 18th July 2020: This article was updated to account for O’Brien’s suspension on 28th April. This amended a previous edit on 27th April which had stated that no disciplinary action was taken against O’Brien.