In this new series, Cambridge students offer their perspective on the problems afflicting the university’s student politics. The series will cover a number of topics and attempt to identify the main causes of underwhelming and ineffective discourse within political institutions, apolitical groups, and the wider university. The authors will also attempt to propose some solutions in order to move the debate in a more productive direction. In the third instalment, the author examines the problems with the collegiate decision making and how students’ actions can contribute to these problems.
In May last year, I was peripherally involved in an incident which ended up having a significant impact on my college life. The incident alerted me to the unstable and inconsistent nature of Cambridge colleges and their decision-making processes, as it was the response of my college that caused this incident to have such a severe and unnecessarily disruptive effect on me. Before this unpleasant episode I had only positive things to say about the college system, which is unique in providing colleges as a bedrock of support, both socially and pastorally, where one can find a sense of community that brings everyone together. However, this one incident swiftly changed the way I view some of these aspects, bringing the very worst out of my college and exposing the potential weaknesses of the Cambridge college system in dealing with isolated issues, when they have a spectrum of effects on multiple parties.
The incident I refer to was much discussed amongst Cambridge students last year. A student was recorded making remarks that should not have been made in a public setting. Given the nature of social media and various online platforms, a video circulated within hours, and the situation intensified. As a result of this, my college punished the student for his actions. I do not wish to elaborate on the specific circumstance, as this is irrelevant to the topic in question, except to say that this student and everyone present were subsequently treated like criminals, beyond all reasonable proportions, by both students and the college. Those at the head of college succumbed to the mounting pressure coming from what I am sure was a very small but very vocal group of students on social media and did not take the particular facts of the incident, or indeed the welfare of those involved, into consideration when deciding how to deal with the problem.
The college system is almost universally regarded as a force for good. The structures in place create a secure hub within which we may all go about our student lives. However, whilst secure and robust on the outside, these structures can also lead to knee-jerk reactions from a college’s higher authorities; the segmentation of the university exposes colleges more significantly to pressures, and they will bow to the will of the majority for the sake of reputation, which can result in the vilification of individuals for acts that, at other establishments, would have been swept under the carpet and deemed totally irrelevant. The phrase ‘that’s so Cambridge’ was used countless times when I told friends from home about the way my college had handled this incident last year. Should we be proud of this over-exaggeration of events? Is the hassle and aggravation worth it? It has certainly become fashionable to follow the loudest voices, but are these voices always right?
From my experience, a lot of the reaction from college authorities was an attempt to save face and to avoid having their name in the spotlight. With Oxbridge scandals a hot target for the tabloid press, it is understandable that colleges may have their reputation as a first priority and be willing to ignore any other consideration, such as student welfare. Whilst I sympathise with the situation the college was in regarding its reputation, and recognise that the college had to act quickly, I believe in the battle between protecting themselves and protecting the students involved, student welfare must come first, and in my experience, this was certainly not the case.
The way in which the college proceeded to punish the students, of which some were only marginally involved, showed a lack of awareness in the face of a demanding student group, including the student press. While I was mostly disappointed by the reaction of the college to external pressures, I suggest that the student press itself, the cause of the pressure, must take some of the blame. Writers and editors do a fantastic job of documenting the issues facing this university, and while they are dedicated and, in many cases, competent, they must be aware of the impact that a swarm of journalistic attention has on the mental health of people caught up in such a scandal. I, despite clearly having no relevant information to add, received numerous messages asking for more information, to such an extent that I had no choice but to reply with something simply to get them off my back. Not only do the heads of colleges have to change their method, but as students we must do the same. Instead of continually directing student attention towards issues that seem sensational, we should understand the effect this can have on the college process, which functions best without intense pressure for a certain decision, and the damage that we can cause to students caught up in these incidents through unceasing and unjust vilification.
Beyond this instance, I’d like to add some thoughts on social media. It undoubtedly plays a significant role in our everyday lives, as almost all friends, events, and groups are sharing information simultaneously through it. We must not be scared to react truthfully to what we see online: we should treat it just the same as if it had been heard verbally. People should not be able to hide behind a keyboard and get away with offensive and discriminatory comments, most of which are completely unfounded. College authorities do not have access to what is communicated between Cambridge students until it blows up into a full-blooded scandal, at which point it is too late and too difficult to be able to digest the full context and accurately assess the sentiment amongst students, if that even ought to be a major factor in the decision. Let’s stop it at the source, deal with what is put out there with respect and attention, and not be afraid to defend ourselves online. I believe the effect of the incident I was involved in would have been much less severe had the rational and forgiving portion of the student population aired their more moderate views with the same boldness and visibility that certain other students aired theirs. In breaking the silence of the majority, you may initially be one voice, but just as quickly as people will jump on something negative, others will rally behind you if what you preach is essentially a positive message.
The solution to all this goes deeper than simple college structures. Each incident is different and requires its own unique treatment, yet we must not have inaccuracies and inconsistencies when there is the potential for damaging consequences arising out of the handling of these events. There must be a university-wide procedure that is implemented every time an occurrence of this kind surfaces. The current problem arises because every college handbook is different, one Senior Tutor may take an incident lighter than the next: these inconsistencies don’t help anyone. Moreover, we cannot have colleges who are not able to handle the spotlight when the loud voices within them and the press come demanding answers. A consistent, universal, university-wide policy should be in place with clear guidelines for dealing with incidents of student misbehaviour so that one incident in one college is treated on the same level as another elsewhere. Just as it would be unacceptable for a judgement on an issue in court to differ depending on the whims of a single judge and not the law, it should be unacceptable for your punishment to be dependent on which Senior Tutor you end up getting as your judge in a college matter. Events of this kind don’t come along particularly often, especially not ones that transcend college boundaries. However, when they do, regardless of your opinion on the matter at hand or on those involved, we must be wary of the impact this has on the individuals. Colleges are fantastic institutions that have a heavy hand in shaping the way we look back on our time at Cambridge, but the affairs that would have been treated sensibly and without much ado at other universities, can instead bring about toxic and oversensitive reactions that don’t do anyone any favours.