The continuing debate over the Peter Thompson scandal raises further questions about the University’s handling of sexual assault allegations.
A previously sanctioned professor’s attendance at an event that he was thought to have been banned from has sparked new debate regarding the efficacy of sexual assault protections at the University of Oxford.
Peter Thompson, 61, a fellow of St Cross College and the Sydney L Mayer associate professor of American history, had previously been accused by former students of inappropriate behaviour, including drunkenness and sexual harassment.
Complaints regarding Thompson began as early as 2017 when a group of fellow Oxford academics co-authored a letter in which they claimed that they didn’t believe Dr. Thompson was “fit to teach” based on student narratives and complaints made about Thompson’s behavior. After two students and five staff members submitted letters expressing similar concerns about Thompson’s pattern of drunkenness and sexual harassment, the University launched a formal investigation in 2020. Following the investigation, allegations concerning Thompson were upheld by the investigation board. The university refused to disclose the exact findings due to concerns about privacy.
Following the investigation, Thompson was suspended from the department for a 1-year period. Colleges, however, do not hold complete authority in their ability to sanction professors, with such powers spread across more than one of the University’s institutions. At the beginning of the 2021-2022 academic year, he was still assigned a group of students to mentor in both his college of St. Cross and the History department, although these students were soon reassigned.
In October of 2021, the investigations unit of the Al-Jazeera news network released a podcast series detailing abuses of power on part of academics in top universities worldwide. Among the episodes was one regarding Thompson, which recounted student experiences to underline the disappointment that individuals felt towards the University’s approach to handling Thompson’s case.
Following the release of the viral podcast, public actions to reassign Thompson’s mentees and reallocate Thompson’s St. Cross-based office were taken. This involved his suspension from the College and his removal from the position of Governing Body Fellow. Thompson’s office on St. Cross premises was also vacated, despite a pre-existing arrangement with the History department which allowed him to base his office in the College.
In November, St. Cross College administration sent an email to all students asserting that disciplinary action was underway. The email, from Master Carole Souter, stated that “College was not involved in this process, and no College students were part of the complaint.” The message asserted that “Professor Thompson [would] not have any contact with students this year, or attend events of the History Faculty, the Rothermere American Institute, or St. Cross, whether online or in-person”.
In a statement from members of the St. Cross SCR, student representatives expressed concerns that the college had not been involved in the investigation. One student stated that it was “unnerving” that the College had not been included in this matter as “such complaints do not exist in a vacuum and support must theoretically extend across student spaces within Oxford.”
Despite the allegations against him during the 2021-2022 academic year, Thompson was appointed as the Chair of the Examinations Subcommittee for the undergraduate History degree, a position that serves as a regulatory body overseeing examination quality assurance. Furthermore, Professor Thompson was allowed to continue as a “marker” for university exams.
The retention of Thompson in these departments was again met with concerns from students and course representatives across the department.
“While this position did not place him directly in contact with students, it did and does place him in a position of authority over victims”, stated one history department student.
In light of student complaints, the following statement was made by the History Faculty Board Chair to the Blue:
“Neither Thompson’s role as a marker of exam scripts nor his role as Chair of the Examinations Sub-Committee brought him into contact with students, either online or in person.
Following discussion with him this morning, we have agreed that Prof. Thompson will not be marking scripts produced by this or any future cohort of students at Oxford. Although he does not come into contact with students, or exercise authority over the performance of particular students or any group of students, he has agreed to step down from this role because of the way that this position has been represented over the last few days”.
Most notably in this term was the matter of Thompson’s presence at a recent history department event, an appearance that revitalized concerns of students across the humanities disciplines. Despite Thompson’s sanction against attending events related to the History faculty, he was present at the 25th of April inaugural lecture by Adam Smith, Edward Orsborn Professor of US Politics and US History.
In a statement to the Blue, the History Faculty stated that they “did not know that Thompson had attended the talk until they were notified the morning after”. The statement continued to say that the faculty “recognizes that Prof. Thompson’s attendance at the lecture has caused substantial distress for a number of students, and serious discussions are underway to ensure that the recommendations proposed by the Faculty Complaints Procedures Working Group are implemented as soon as possible”.
In a closed correspondence with student representatives across the humanities, the department admitted that Thompson’s attendance had been due to a misunderstanding in which he thought that the event he was understanding was under the jurisdiction of another department.
Reflecting on the events, representatives across Oxford institutions including the postgraduate humanities studies and the Student Union strongly criticized the historically disjointed nature of addressing complaints related to faculty in a university setting.-
A representative from the Oxford Student Union stated that “Thompson went to the event because thought it was being held by another part of the university rather than the history department. This is concerning because theoretically, it is possible for someone to be reported for harassment through the university or department and not have any sanctions at the college or for complaints to be upheld to university not communicated to a college in the interest of privacy”
St. Cross College confirmed that although Thompson’s presence in the History department occurred, the college would ensure that he continued to be unwelcome at St. Cross student events and not have contact with STX students.
Representatives from the college administration also stated the college was unable to play a role in the termination of Thompson’s employment, because Thompson’s contract was through the university in conjunction with the history department, and those bodies were responsible in decisions relating to hiring or firing him.
Typically, Oxford professors are hired by the university at large, rather than their departmental faculty or the college to which they are assigned. Following these events, students have expressed concerns regarding the university-wide policies and processes in place for offering protections against faculty abuses and misconduct.
In the words of one St. Cross student, who wished to remain anonymous, “The presence of multiple separate contracts interface with the presence of multiple policies for handling harassment claims between each institutional body, often creating confusion and a culture of deferring blame regarding the way that issues of faculty misconduct are handled”.
Despite the actions taken to restrict Thompson’s authority, many students remain unconvinced of the efficacy of university policy to fully protect against abuses by faculty, especially due to the limited reach that any punitive sanctions may have in only extending to the departments under which they are operating. A vocal group of students has continued to demand greater inter-departmental transparency of disclosure regarding complaints and more wide-spanning and conjoined efforts to protect students across all facilities within the university setting.
“Students are not isolated to their faculties”, stated a humanities representative from the Student Union. “There is a tremendous amount of crossover between faculty and the university must take steps to better protect students across colleges, faculties, and spaces in between. Academic bureaucracy cannot act as a crutch that prevents transparency on student procedures”.