Current Affairs

Open letter to Christ Church censors: we demand a public apology

This article has been updated on 03/07/2020 with Christ Church’s statement in response, which appears below the article.

This is an open letter written by a group of Oxford students. The petition has been signed by 2,700 students from 98 universities worldwide since 4th June, including UCL, Toronto, New York, Harvard, Amsterdam, Université de Paris, National University of Singapore, and Cambridge. Oxford has contributed over 1,800 names. The full list of universities is below.

Dear Professor Geraldine Johnson and Professor Dirk Aarts,

We ask that you publicly apologise for your mistreatment of student Melanie Onovo. This has gone on for long enough and frankly your apology up to this point has been performative at best. 

The University of Oxford has a problem with systematic racism. It is and has been a perpetrator in the silencing of black voices for centuries. Your leadership has shown the wider student community that current leaders of colleges are just as guilty. Your handling of this matter has undermined the recent public letter signed by all the Oxford colleges, including your own. This letter cited the “personal capacity” in which heads of colleges could promote “tolerance and multiculturalism”. You have shown that you have a personal capacity for racial-bias. The University of Oxford has a crucial role in dismantling systemic racism within institutions, including its own. You have propogated systematic racism, rather than opposed it.

This is not an isolated incident of silencing a black student, but rather another addition to a long history of failure.

Whilst you were not present when the original comment was made, your handling of the response and your active harassment of Ms Onovo has been unacceptable. To call your student, and ask her what the “rationale” was behind going public with what she witnessed, rather than support her was not merely a mistake, it was an abuse of power. This abuse of power continued, such as when you asked her for her input on your public statement. Students should not shoulder the burden of responsibility of public image with their college leaders.

It is your job to safeguard the wellbeing of your students and you have failed to do so.

The University of Oxford student community has united to condemn your response. Emergency General Meetings have been called at almost all the colleges, with the first vote at St Anne’s passing overwhelmingly. 

A petition stating that “We the undersigned believe that the Christ Church Senior and Junior Censor have acted appallingly and should issue a public apology” has now been signed by over 2700 students from across 98 universities worldwide, including Oxford which contributed over 1800 names.

Collectively we call upon you to publicly acknowledge your wrongdoing and apologise to your student. 

Sincerely, 

The student community of the University of Oxford

List of universities represented:

UCL

Kent

Coventry

Kings

Durham

Edinburgh

Cambridge

LSE

Leeds

Sussex

LJMU

Aston

SOAS

Reading

Glasgow

Queen Mary

Nottingham Trent

Brunel

Oxford Brookes

Warwick 

Surrey

Manchester Metropolitan 

Lancaster

Leeds Beckett

Exeter

Imperial

Royal Holloway

City Law School

Bristol

East Anglia

Oxford

Newcastle

Sussex

University of Westminster

Manchester

De Montfort

Ulster University

Sheffield

St Andrews

University of North Carolina 

Anhui Medical University

St. Georges

National University of Singapore 

University of Manitoba

Southampton

University of the West of England

Cardiff

York

Brighton 

Swansea

Greenwhich

Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Canterbury Christ Church

Hertfordshire

Wellesley College

BIMM Bristol

Bath

University of the Arts London

University of London City

Lincoln

Columbia Univeristy 

Harvard

Edinburgh Napier University 

Strathclyde 

Amsterdam

McMaster University

Goldsmiths 

Loughborough

University Centre Leeds

Sciences Po Paris 

Plymouth Marjon 

Amsterdam Univeristy College

McGill

Queen’s University at Kingston

London College of Fashion

University of Toronto 

Glasgow School of Art

University of Salford

NSCAD

University of Chicago

Washington University in St. Louis

University of Sydney 

Cardiff Metropolitan

Université de Paris

Kingston

London Studio Centre

Bocconi 

Liverpool John Moores

Trinity College Dublin 

Hull

Reaseheath

New York University

Bournemouth

Birmingham City

Northumbria

BPP Uni

Princeton

Dundee

Statement from Christ Church: 01/07/2020

Christ Church is a firm supporter of student journalism, and of freedom of expression. However, as an educational charity, we have an obligation to ensure that the reputation of the organisation, its staff and students, is not permanently affected by false allegations that can circulate forever online. We are, therefore, grateful for our recent, frank discussions with the Editors of the Oxford Blue, in which we have made clear our very serious disappointment that Christ Church was not originally approached to corroborate a number of Oxford Blue stories following an incident at the JCR hustings on 31 May 2020. We hope that their decision to publish this statement from Christ Church helps to clarify matters, now and in the future.

We have repeatedly stated on our website, in messages to our students, and on Twitter, our clear and unambiguous condemnation of the deeply offensive remarks that were made at the JCR hustings on the evening of 31 May. There has been no attempt to minimise what happened and disciplinary proceedings are now underway in regards to the remarks made at the hustings and related matters. We also fully support the necessary steps the JCR Exec is taking to learn from these events. In our public statements and private conversations, we explicitly praised those who spoke out at the hustings. Any allegations to the contrary are simply not true.

While we cannot disclose specific details (in order to respect student confidentiality) please rest assured that support was offered from the early morning on 1 June onwards by our Welfare team, the College GP, and other qualified professionals. We also asked a BAME counsellor to help. Our support is ongoing. Again, any allegations you may have heard to the contrary are simply untrue.

Christ Church is committed not just to words, but also to action. Anti-bias and consent workshops have been mandatory for freshers since 2017, with attendance taken since the start of the current academic year. Christ Church’s Equality and Diversity Committee was established in 2019. At its very first meeting, it created a working party to Diversify the Visual Environment, which seeks to contextualise existing images, and commission new portraits reflecting diversity: ethnicity, gender, sexuality and ability. We also support access initiatives that focus on under-represented groups, including Target OxbridgeOpportunity OxfordDebate MateOxford for North East, and IntoUniversity. Our students are planning to raise funds during the 2020 Christ Church Regatta for the Fulham Reach Boat Club, a charity that encourages greater diversity in sport. Since 2014, our custodians have participated in mandatory anti-bias training at least once per year. A selection of relevant materials is being prepared for tutors to read and then share with their students. And we are currently negotiating a new scholarship that would be earmarked for Black, Asian and minority ethnic graduate students.

The steps taken thus far are part of an ongoing process—more must and will be done. On 12 June, we announced a new partnership with Femi Otitoju, founder of Challenge Consultancy, to develop a series of listening events in the coming weeks for all students and all staff, both academic and non-academic. This has the full support of Christ Church’s Governing Body and JCR Executive. These sessions will help us find new ways to talk about race, to listen and learn, and to identify further steps to address issues around racial equality, diversity, and inclusion. These meetings will help us develop a long-term action plan that will review our training provision and set new goals intended to make a real impact.

A worldwide movement to tackle racism at its root has now emerged. We want to make sure that Christ Church—all of Christ Church—plays an energetic role in finding new ways forward within the College and, more broadly, across the University. Our aim is to build a culture together where every single student and member of staff has the tools to stand up for our core values of tolerance and equality.