NUS President snubs Cambridge Union

26 April 2012

The fallout from Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s controversial visit to the Cambridge Union Society last term rumbles on, as it emerges that a speaker that had been lined up for this term’s Union programme refused his invitation as a result of the Union’s decision to allow Strauss-Kahn to speak.

Prior to Strauss-Kahn’s visit in March, Liam Burns, President of the National Union of Students (NUS) had initially accepted an invitation from the Union Society to speak as part of its Easter Term programme of events.

However, in an email sent to the Union’s then President-Elect, David Leigh, five days after Strauss-Kahn’s visit to the Union, and this week seen by The Cambridge Student, Burns rejected the invitation, writing: “I am not willing to associate myself or the National Union of Students with the same platform so soon after this flawed decision was taken”.

The Union’s decision to invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak on international economics last term sparked outrage among some students. Over 700 students signed a petition organised by the Cambridge University Students’ Union (CUSU) Women’s Campaign calling for his dis-invitation.

Strauss-Kahn resigned as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year after he was accused of raping a New York hotel maid Nafissatou Diallo. Although charges were later dropped, Diallo is now pursuing a civil case against him. Strauss-Kahn is also accused by French writer Tristane Banon of attempting to rape her in 2003.

Since speaking at the Union, Strauss-Kahn has been charged in France with “complicity in aggravated and organised prostitution” and “misuse of company assets” in relation to several orgies he attended in various cities, including Paris and Washington, while at the IMF.

The Union decided to uphold the invitation on the grounds of freedom of speech and Strauss-Kahn’s talk went ahead as planned on Friday 9th March, amid protests and some vandalism of the Union building. Four people were arrested, including two Cambridge University students, though only two of these people still have charges standing against them.

The following Wednesday, Burns, who was yesterday re-elected for his second year as NUS President, emailed Leigh, writing: “Unfortunately I have to decline your invitation to speak at the Union. I’ve been made aware of the editorial decision made a few days after my acceptance to allow Dominique Strauss-Kahn to speak at the Union, despite strong protests from groups on campus. For quite obvious reasons, I find this decision deeply problematic.” By this time, Leigh had resigned as President-Elect, citing “academic reasons”.

Burns went on: “Even if Strauss-Khan had been acquitted of allegations against him, I would argue that an invitation to campus when the local women’s group have made it quite clear their objection to such a speaker is not in the best interest of women students (or indeed any students) at Cambridge. However in this instance, Strauss-Khan is still under investigation. Considering the severity of the allegations, I am at best surprised and at worst appalled that it was deemed appropriate to still invite him.”

Current Union President Michael Black yesterday insisted to TCS that Liam Burns is the only speaker to have rejected a Union Society invitation on the grounds that they hosted Dominique Strauss-Kahn as a speaker last term.

Black went on: “Naturally, we respect Mr Burns’s decision. I stand by the decision of the previous standing committee not to dis-invite Dominique Strauss-Kahn, as for almost two hundred years the Union has been a neutral platform for free speech and it is offered to anyone that we believe our members would be interested to hear. Also, it is not for student officers to decide whether someone is guilty or not-guilty of a crime.”

Michael Yoganayagam – Associate News Editor

Photo: Robert Palmer