Cambridge University has refused to answer important questions regarding last week’s conviction of a former Cambridge Philosophy professor for child pornography offences.
Dr Peter Smith, aged 67, who officially retired from the Faculty of Philosophy in September 2011, was sentenced on Friday to a three-year community order and has been placed on the sex offenders’ register for a period of 60 months for downloading 4143 illegal images of children between 2009 and 2011.
He has also been banned from using any computer with internet access and is required to attend a programme for internet sexual offenders, as well as completing 180 hours of unpaid work.
Smith was arrested in May 2011 after a police investigation into a website based in Luxembourg found he had been a customer.
The court heard the images found on Smith’s computer ranged from level 1 to level 5 in the COPINE scale, which is used to categorise indecent images of children. Level 5 is defined as “deliberately posed pictures of fully, partially clothed or naked children in sexualised or provocative poses”.
This is not Dr Smith’s first brush with controversy. In July 2003, he was forced to resign as a Fellow of Jesus College, after the Mail on Sunday exposed him as having slept with prostitutes in his college study free of charge, in return for writing “explicit reviews” of the escorts’ “lovemaking abilities and sexual preferences” for a website linked to the escort agency. The study was the same one in which Smith conducted one-to-one supervisions.
The reviews described “in pornographic detail, three-in-a-bed sex sessions, oral sex and other practices that cannot be described in a family newspaper”, according to the original Mail on Sunday article.
Dr Smith was suspended from teaching in the Philosophy Faculty from 1 September to 16 December 2003, and returned to teaching at the start of Easter Term in 2004.
Smith’s return to teaching after only 8 months caused considerable outrage among students. At the time, a University spokesman defended Smith’s return: “The complaint was investigated and was dealt with under the provisions of the appropriate university disciplinary statute.”
This week, The Cambridge Student asked the University a detailed series of questions, enquiring whether the University was launching an investigation into Smith’s conduct and activity on University computers while he was working in the Faculty; whether any of the pornographic images had been downloaded using University computers; and whether any had been seized/searched during the course of the police investigation. These questions were all directly ignored by the University.
The University also refused to comment on whether it had been remiss in allowing Smith to return to work following his suspension in 2003, and whether, in light of Smith’s non-custodial sentence, he would have any future involvement with the Faculty or University.
The only statement the University was prepared to make on the matter read as follows: “Dr Smith’s resignation from his Fellowship was accepted by the then Master in July 2003. Dr Smith retired from his position at the Faculty of Philosophy in September 2011.”
In particular, the University has refused to provide detail on whether Smith will have any future involvement with the Faculty, in the light of his non-custodial sentence. Neither his arrest in May 2011, nor his retirement in September 2011, seem to have prevented Smith from maintaining a profile within the University. On 26 October 2011, he gave a talk to the Serious Metaphysics Group within the Philosophy Faculty.
Students however are not as keen as the University to sweep this story under the carpet. Cambridge University Students’ Union Women’s Officer Ruth Graham told TCS: “”It seems reasonable to ask that the University make a formal enquiry into Peter Smith’s activities during his time as an employee of the Philosophy Faculty, given the appalling nature of his offence. Furthermore the decision to allow him to return to teaching after sleeping with prostitutes in his college study seems incredible, and certainly requires some explanation. Women’s Forum will discuss this fully and decide if we formally raise the matter with the University. Students fundamentally deserve transparency in such serious issues.”
Michael Yoganayagam – Associate News Editor
Article first published 08 March 2012