Angry Peterhouse students protest May Ball cancellation

Josh Hardie 9 November 2007

The cancellation of the 2008 Peterhouse May Ball – a decision which attracted national media coverage – has caused huge controversy amongst the college’s student body.

Rumours, gossip and speculation are now rife amongst Petreans, who refuse to accept the reason they were given by the college authorities – that it was detrimental to the students’ academic results – as a sufficient explanation for the ruling.

The college has also seen acts of student protest performed as a way of giving voice to opinions, which, it was felt, were not being heard.

This outrage amongst the college’s student population has led the JCR President, Ben Fisher, to declare “a complete change in policy”.

When it was announced last week that the May Ball would be hosted triennially rather than once every two years, the JCR’s response was, unanimously, to “do nothing unless explicitly requested to do so by the undergraduate body”.

But such a request came this week, as students called for the Committee to challenge the college’s decision instead of accepting it without dispute.

In an email circulated to Peterhouse students, Fisher acknowledged that he had “spectacularly misjudged” the opinion of the student body, and informed them of the Committee’s decision to “reverse its position of not acting, and will do its utmost to get the May Ball reinstated”.

He expressed his wish to show the student body that the JCR “still has teeth, and can still bite”.

But one student, who anonymously contacted The Cambridge Student (TCS) under the name of “Peterhouse Undergrad”, suggested that this turnaround in policy came as an attempt on Fisher’s part to appease clamouring Petreans, who, the student said, were considering a declaration of No Confidence in Fisher following his initial failure to act on the decision imposed by the college authorities.

The cancellation of the May Ball has certainly provoked a strong reaction amongst Peterhouse members – many of whom took matters into their own hands to communicate their objection.

On Sunday, a banner with the message “Save Our May Ball” was hung from the College Chapel, along with a string of printed pages featuring national press coverage of the decision, which was tied between two lampposts in Peterhouse Old Court.

But, Peterhouse Undergrad informed TCS that “Tragically the efforts of the resistance within Peterhouse were quickly suppressed by an ever-watchful establishment”.

In particular students have criticised the handling of matters on the part of the college authorities, especially the lack of communication received from them. Another Petrean who spoke to TCS said: “You can’t talk to them. There’s no direct college contact at all. They’re very good at chasing up college bills, but when it comes to this, it’s all quiet”.

A Facebook group dedicated to the cause, “Save Peterhouse May Ball 2008”, has provided students with a forum in which to express their disillusionment with both the college authorities and the JCR.

It has also given rise to much conjecture on the true motivations of the college authorities for the cancellation – as some students refuse to accept that it is purely a matter of improving the college’s academic performance, which was the reason cited for the decision when it was first announced.

“Most people know that’s not the real reason,” one Peterhouse student told TCS. “If you look at the Tompkins Table, results have actually been higher when we have had a May Ball – there is absolutely no correlation between poor exam results and hosting a Ball”.

In results dating back to 2000, Peterhouse’s position in the Tompkins Table in fact improved three out of the four years in which May Balls were hosted.

“Rumours are circulating amongst the student body that some benefactors aren’t funding the college because of poor exam performance. By cancelling the Ball, the college has taken headline-grabbing action, which makes it look like they are tackling the problem of exam results.

“It’s easier for them to do this than to start improving teaching quality, which is really what they should be doing”.

Another student agreed that the college was “passing the buck” by using the May Ball as a scapegoat for poor exam performance. “If there’s something wrong with student academic performance, it’s always the students’ fault,” he said.

Describing the relationship between the students and the college, he told TCS that “It’s still very much a paternal attitude. They enact decisions without student consultation”.

An Open Meeting scheduled as a matter of immediate concern will take place this evening (Thursday), where students will give voice to their opinions, and decide on the possible consequences to be effected, should the college not agree to return to the biennial May Ball cycle.

When contacted by TCS, both Ben Fisher and the Peterhouse authorities declined to provide further comment.

Catherine Watts

Josh Hardie