Current Affairs

Christ Church JCR exec release statement on handling of hustings controversy

The Christ Church JCR executive committee released a statement by email to Christ Church students this evening signed by the JCR President Jarnail Atwal, Vice-President Arun Smith, and Secretary Efe Kati. The statement addresses last Sunday’s hustings where a joke was made by a candidate for “cake rep” comparing the murder of George Floyd to “flour shortages”, and the controversy that has followed this week.

Jarnail Atwal has been criticised for being the only JCR president not to sign the open letter by ACS to the University voicing student concerns about racism, welfare and complaints and disciplinary procedures, for which he apologises and calls an “inexcusable error”.

The JCR exec address the “distressing experience one of our own members has had to go through this week, after making her own stand against racism”. The exec admits that they “sincerely wish we had done more to address the serious and visible effects that the recent spate of offensive comments have had on this individual’s emotional and physical health”. The committee lay out “proposals to allow for systemic change”, which include reforms to the JCR constitution and “appropriate” anti-racism training.

The statement, which is addressed to “all members of the University”, despite only being sent to Christ Church members on Sunday night, reads as follows:

Open letter from the JCR Executive at Christ Church to members of the University

The past week has been a difficult and upsetting one for many members of our JCR, especially the most marginalised and vulnerable members of our community. What follows is a frank and personal response to these events. This letter is also an unwavering commitment to change and a manifesto to which we will be held accountable. 

We begin by rejecting in no uncertain terms the language used by two of our members on the night of our hustings. Their references to recent tragic events, which have acutely affected many within our JCR, were intolerable and it was alarming to learn that more than one individual within our JCR felt this was acceptable. While their language proved most offensive at a time when the discourse around race was highly sensitive, it goes without saying that such words will never be appropriate. They have now both delivered full public apologies and their actions are being dealt with by the relevant college authorities.

The JCR wants to respond to the incident deftly. We recognise that steps must be taken, not simply to contain it, but to address the wider context which permits such abuses of language. We are implementing a number of proposals to allow for systemic change. Firstly, the JCR constitution will be reviewed to expand on its commitment to equality. There are several ways to do this. Chairpersons will be reminded that it is their duty to address abusive and discriminatory language in the instance in which it occurs, and the standing orders should reflect that. This could also be achieved through a code of conduct to which candidates and elected officers subscribe, while simultaneously respecting their right to express themselves freely. The JCR’s equality commitment in its constitution must similarly be fortified in order to engender a deeper understanding of the different ways in which inequities manifest themselves, and such a focus on students’ lived experiences should be shared in the college’s equality policy. This would provide JCR representatives with a clearly defined approach to dealing with breaches of the commitment to equality.

Secondly, we recognise that the wider JCR has a lot to offer in this regard. We need to ensure that the valuable suggestions of members in the JCR who are working hard to press for long-term change and improvements do not go unheard, which is why we will establish structures to funnel them to individuals in positions of leadership. For instance, we have established a formal sub-committee that bridges the gap between the wider JCR and JCR leadership, as a starting point. Similarly, there ought to be robust systems which ensure that members who feel abused or harassed, for whatever reason, can have these complaints addressed.

Thirdly, we commit to engaging in sober and nuanced discussions about race within the college. The college must ensure that all members receive appropriate anti-racism training. We are glad that compulsory equality training takes place in Freshers’ Week, but we share concerns that it is currently ineffective in many respects. Similarly, we are keen to convene a reading group, where literature and other media can be used to enhance discussions about race. Structures like the sub-committee will scrutinise these initiatives, and ensure they are rigorous. 

We must be strict about when we wish for these goals to be achieved, if we are at all to achieve them. On the first point, we hope to hold a meeting to construct amendments to the constitution before the term ends, subject to the advice and counsel we receive from our constituents. This will be in place before the next hustings. On the second point, the college authorities are aware of the need for fortified training and we will encourage them to speak to independent organisations who may be able to deliver these resources. Similarly, we are pleased that discussions about convening the reading group are ongoing with college academics and we hope to hold a first meeting this term. On the third point, we are equally pleased to announce the establishment of the aforesaid sub-committee, and this will meet for the first time on Sunday. We are in discussions with the college about how best to enhance welfare provision, but this effort has been reiterated by a JCR-wide email reminding members of the current resources on abuse and harassment. It is incumbent on us to ensure these proposals are not empty, and will be put in place, and we will speak closely with the next executive to emphasise this point.

It would be negligent not to accept that mistakes have been made in this process. It was an inexcusable error not to endorse the letter produced by the Oxford ACS, and the failure to sign it was a human oversight. The JCR President does not take lightly the affiliation of the Christ Church JCR to any public statement without detailed consideration, especially when the subject matter involves events intimately relating to Christ Church. We deeply regret the distress and confusion this has caused and wish to reiterate our position now, in order for redress and for clarity.

We fully support the attention the letter draws to the concerning spate of racially insensitive comments made across Oxford, including our JCR. We are keen for the central University to address this, as it is quite clearly an issue endemic across Oxford. We are also appalled at the distressing experience one of our own members has had to go through this week, after making her own stand against racism. We sincerely wish we had done more to address the serious and visible effects that the recent spate of offensive comments have had on this individual’s emotional and physical health, and we wholeheartedly apologise. We additionally want to note that we are deeply concerned by allegations of abuse and urge these to be reported immediately to University authorities. We endorse the action plan the letter contains, especially in urging the University to discipline those who have racially discriminated against others or harassed them online.

This letter is a vital call-to-action in places where the University has failed to address the disturbing status quo, and we are deeply sorry that it was not signed. We must, however, also use this to defend the integrity of the Christ Church Censors, whose character we honestly believe has been unfairly dismissed. While we do not doubt that there is much to learn from this distressing incident, it is equally true that disinformation has spread far and wide across Oxford, which hurtfully impugns the conduct of the Censors, those in JCR leadership and the wider JCR. As an executive, we are in a privileged position to assess the response of the Censors and we do not doubt their sincerity and desire for marginalised voices to be heard for one moment. Their receptiveness to our concerns has been evident to us. We must also emphasise that the JCR did denounce the disgraceful language used on Sunday, if not aurally, at the very least on internal social media and through text, and the remarks were addressed by the JCR President at the end of the hustings.

Similarly, we cannot agree, at least within Christ Church, that individuals’ welfare have been weaponised. We take the wellbeing of all our members very seriously, and we will not be challenged on this. The welfare staff have had serious concerns about the wellbeing of those most affected at this challenging time, and we are committed to enhancing support for the most marginalised of our members. All students are urged to report abuse or harassment, and we have reiterated this crucial point to our members.

The thrust of the letter produced by the ACS is so powerful that, upon enquiry, we have no qualms in affiliating ourselves to it. We are again sorry that we did not do so in the first instance. A notice will be sent to the vice-chancellor informing her of our support.

We have much to learn from this ordeal and we hope you will work with our JCR to grow and improve, and also use this incident to reflect on the prejudices which exist all across our society. These problems are not limited to Christ Church, and it would be negligent not to recognise that what we have experienced is a symptom of a much more prevalent disease. We thank you for your patience in allowing us to take these steps now and in the weeks to come, and can only hope that our JCR will be better protected against this scourge for perpetuity.

The JCR Executive (President, Vice-President, and Secretary)

Christ Church

Oxford”

In the email, Atwal also says:

“We in the JCR executive have decided to publish a letter to the wider University to respond to several allegations levelled at our JCR, and to address some mistakes I have made. It is a frank account of our personal experiences, not a PR exercise. I hope you find it beneficial.

May I now say something in a personal capacity: you may have seen a petition published in a student newspaper calling for the Censors to provide a public apology. I must speak out now. They have been treated in the most unfair and defamatory fashion. They are people of integrity, decency, competence and honesty. This for me is an issue beyond student politics, it is now one of my own personal morality. I cannot bear to see two individuals with whom I have had the privilege of working be abused in this way. If you disagree with me, I am available to comment at length, but my position is crystal clear.”

The Christ Church censors released a statement on the 4th June, and the college heads had a letter published in The Guardian pledging to fight systemic racism and discrimination, in response to events in the US.

Today, The Oxford Blue reported on an open letter written by a group of Oxford students to the Christ Church censors, which has got 2,700 signatures from 98 different universities worldwide.

This article was amended at 00:15 on 7th June, ten minutes after publishing, to add the personal comments from Jarnail included in his email to Christ Church students.

Correction: this article was published with a draft version of the title, which has since been amended.

Phoebe Hennell

Phoebe Hennell is co-founder of The Oxford Blue, and former Managing Director. She is reading Philosophy and Modern Greek at Christ Church, and is on her year abroad in Athens.