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Exeter College alumnus Michael Amherst handed back his English BA to the University at the Exam Schools on Tuesday.
The gesture was made in response to the controversy surrounding Exeter College’s renting out of college buildings to the evangelical anti-gay group Christian Concern.
Exeter’s actions have been widely condemned since the emergence of the story in 4th week, including by legendary civil liberties and LGBTQ campaigner Peter Tatchell who commented that:
“Oxford University is renowned worldwide for its pioneering scientific and ethical achievements; for its pursuit of truth and equality. It’s therefore bizarre that Exeter College is facilitating a Christian fundamentalist event that promotes homophobia and discredited so-called ‘cures’ for homosexuality. I doubt that Exeter would rent their college to racists or anti-Semites. Why, then, are they giving a platform and veneer of respectability to homophobes?”
Amherst has been an active member of numerous prison reform charities and is now CEO of Avonbrook Projects Abroad, a charitable organisation who “fund the recruitment, training and retention of professional teachers to provide a higher quality of education in developing countries”.
In a letter sent to Exeter Rector Frances Cairncross, Amherst declared that “I am sorry to say that the conduct of Exeter College in both agreeing to host Christian Concern and in their response to it has left me with little choice. Exeter College is no longer a place with which I wish to be associated.
“While I recognise that the inadequate funding of our universities means places like Exeter need to find other sources of funding, I worry that Exeter should be seen to be profiteering at the expense of a vulnerable minority of students.
“I welcome the College’s decision to review its procedure for future bookings, but I fear that too many this will merely appear a ruse to wait for the passing of the media storm.”
In response to Amherst’s actions, a spokesperson for the University said: “There is no formal mechanism within the University statutes for a student to return their degree although individuals are, of course, free to choose not to use their qualification should they so wish.”
Speaking to the OxStu, Amherst reiterated his concerns about the Working Group that is to be set up by Exeter to review the manner in which vetting procedures are taken in relation to conference bookings:
“I think that the effectiveness of this working group will greatly depend upon the kind of fellows with which the college populates the Working Group. A large number of feminist and openly gay fellows would, I suspect, mean that the offensive nature of Groups like Christian Concern is properly discussed. While, if the Group is made up of fellows to whom commercial considerations are paramount to all, I would be concerned about the effectiveness of the venture.”
His letter also attacks Cairncross’ management of the controversy, claiming that statements made to himself, students and members of the press had been “sorely lacking”.
And that “at no stage have you or the College apologised for not having adequate checks in place, for allowing this to happen or for the offence caused to current and past members alike.”
Referring to an email circulated around Exeter College following the publication of the OxStu’s exposé, Amherst states that “To simply say that you’re “dismayed that we should come under such an attack” displays both a lack of understanding of the issue at heart as well as total lack of contrition.”
When we took these allegations to Ms Cairncross she said that “Mr Michael Amherst’s criticisms are a matter for him. I don’t particularly want to comment”.
However, Cairncross did go on to release a statement via the University Press Office: “Given Exeter College’s strong record in protecting the rights and dignity of its gay and lesbian members, I am especially dismayed that we should come under attack. The college and its governing body have always worked hard to ensure that its members of all sexual orientations felt safe here and secure from any hostility. In a few weeks [Exeter] will host an annual LGBTQ dinner for college members, an event organised by students and supported strongly by staff and fellows.”
Amherst challenged Cairncross’ claims that the views held by Christian Concern were not known to the college when they accepted the bookings: “[it is not] credible to suggest that neither you nor none of the governing body were ever aware of Christian Concern’s views and the lobbying work they do against the rights of women and the gay community prior to the acceptance of their booking this year, if not in previous years. Nor does it seem credible that the governing body or Steward would not be aware of the offence such a booking would cause the College community.”
Amherst ends his letter in voicing his disappointment as what he sees as the College’s inability to reform: “During my time at Exeter I was a victim of a sexual assault and was subjected to all the stereotypes and discrimination faced by male victims in such a case. I was disappointed by the response both from students and some within the College authorities at the time, but had sincerely hoped that by working with the College we could ensure that Exeter was a place where no one need feel victimised or persecuted. This latest action flies totally in the face of any such hope.
“I remain extremely grateful to my former tutors for the wonderful education I received. An education is so much more than a certificate – and what I gained and learnt from them can never be handed back. I sincerely hope that they will understand my need to do this and in no way take it as a reflection on them or the esteem and deep affection in which I hold them.”
The LGBTQ officers of Exeter College failed to respond when asked for comment. However the Press Office did release a statement claiming to be “from the LGBTQ community” saying that “Exeter is extremely welcoming towards its LGBTQ staff and students. Through its appointments to important positions and its actions in the past, Exeter has demonstrated its support for the LGBTQ community both in Exeter and the wider University.”