Taking action

Friday 21 February 2020

Our coverage of a Cambridge University college’s handling of sexual assault allegations has led to calls for widespread change


Trinity Hall has had a difficult week responding to attention from our reporting of their mishandling of sexual assault allegations.

Emails to alumni and current students, alerting them to our reporting, have been criticised as tone-deafVarsity, the Cambridge University student newspaper, has run a string of reports on the mishandled, unfolding crisis.

One of their stories was about how the leadership of Cambridge University Students Union (CUSU) had called on Jeremy Morris, the Master of Trinity Hall, to resign; it argued his continued role is “an insult to students at Trinity Hall and completely undermines the University’s commitment to tackling sexual misconduct”.

The Master, whose Twitter account was deleted this week, has had his power cut back. The college has appointed a panel of members of the governing body who were not involved in the crisis to speak on behalf of the college. They will lead on responses to the concerns raised in our reporting.

This halfway house arrangement may not last. Concerns are mounting among students about whether one of these fellows is, in fact, conflicted. One fellow has told Tortoise that there is a strong case for a fully external review of what has happened.

The student body is already angry; a Facebook group to help steer a Trinity Hall student response to the article has more than 300 members. There are open letters and open meetings being planned by different bodies within Trinity Hall and the broader Cambridge student body.

Student leaders have resolved that they will not work with the Master. At one meeting, they came to the view that whatever his personal culpability for events, the “egregious mismanagement” of the college means he should resign. If it comes to it, they may hold a referendum of the undergraduate and graduate student body to vote on whether he should step down.

Alumni and students have been making their feelings known in writing already. One recent graduate wrote to the Master: “I don’t see how anyone who is so singularly responsible for so many destructive and morally destitute decisions can continue to hold a position of any authority in the college, let alone lead it.”

One former student revealed that she intended to vote with her wallet: “I would like to make it very clear indeed that I have no intention of donating money unless it seems to me that the college is applying adequate safeguarding and transparent internal procedures.”

One significant donor has shared their disgust with us (although declined to share their letter). And a student organiser has floated the idea that students might refuse to take part in college phone-banking; Trinity Hall gets current students to ring former students to elicit donations. According to their last Annual Report, one of these campaigns raised £280,000.

The college is still digesting our reporting. On Wednesday evening, Clare Jackson, the senior tutor of Trinity Hall, told students during a college open meeting: “Good investigative journalism is absolutely essential in all sorts of fields. But, as senior tutor, I shouldn’t be finding out things…through that.” She was, she said, still reading through it.

But in a students-only meeting afterwards there were frustrations with the college’s reticence – and demands for fast action.

They want proper process. They are distressed, in particular, at our revelation that the college’s former mental health counsellor had testified about the credibility of Trinity Hall student complaints; we reported that she said their behaviour was “atypical” of sexual assault victims.

The issues raised by our reporting have caused problems elsewhere in Cambridge. The History Faculty sent a message to its students intended to discourage discussion of parts of our reporting. This has also backfired – sparking an open letter in protest.

There are pressures building from outside Cambridge, too. Jess Phillips, the Labour MP and a member of the women and equality committee, has already said that, when Parliament sits: “I will seek an opportunity to bring in these institutions to explain how this could happen.”

One alumna has written to the Office for Students, the sector regulator, to ask them to look into the issues raised. Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of the OfS, has told Tortoise: “We cannot comment on the specific allegations in this case, but our general position is that it is unacceptable if universities do not have adequate complaints procedures to deal with sexual assault and misconduct.

“Universities and colleges must have fair and proper processes in place focused on addressing allegations properly, whether they relate to staff or students.”

What next?

Trinity Hall is a case study – not an exception. As our other coverage explained, there are grave concerns about how universities address these issues right across the board. This is not about one college in Cambridge, nor only Cambridge. This is a sector-wide problem.

There are things that you can do: