Hist committee divided amid allegations of bullying

news1A public spat between prominent members of the  College Historical Society (Hist) escalated yesterday when its auditor was accused of “throwing committee members under a bus” after distancing himself from the deletion of comments on its public Facebook group.

Society head Michael Coleman had said on Wednesday that he did not condone the group’s two administrators, a senior and junior committee member, deleting comments under a statement in which he and seven other committee members called for an end to the spreading of several “unfounded and malicious rumours” about individuals involved in the society. He came under criticism for failing to support the administrators, whose deletions were publicly mocked by members of the group, after it emerged that they had been asked to disable comments on the post before it was published.

In a statement last night, Coleman clarified: “I have a problem with the fact that comments were deleted last night and I don’t think it should have happened, but it’s important to note that it did not come from a malicious place – there was a miscommunication that led to two admins believing that it was a committee policy to delete comments on that post, given the statement said it was the ‘final word’ on the issue.”

Several of the deleted comments had criticised the committee statement on so-called rumours for failing to address sexist behaviour allegedly still rife in the society. John Prasifka, a former committee member, commented that discussion of bullying and sexism based on hearsay should not be described as unfounded. “The Hist has a longstanding issue with sexists that has not changed in any meaningful way,” he wrote in a comment that was quickly removed. “The ability for people who experience issues in the Hist to talk to others as a support mechanism and as an avenue for change is vital.” The statement, he said, “facilitates the culture of silence in wider society, where people who question existing power dynamics are the real bullies, and those that abuse their power are not.”

Trinity News has spoken to several other members of the society who support this sentiment, saying they are frustrated over its lack of progress on equity reforms.

A former committee member, who asked not to be named, told Trinity News that she was “relentlessly abused” by several current committee members who accused her of “plotting” behind their backs after she raised proposals to combat discrimination in the society.

“I wanted to do a sexism review and that got shut down ridiculously quickly because apparently I didn’t have any right to do it and that anything like that should come from Michael [Coleman, the Hist auditor], even though he had said he was fine with me doing it,” she said. Proponents of the review had hoped it would assess whether demands outlined in a statement published last year, which drew attention to sexism in the society, had been adequately met, she said.

One committee member, who eventually supported the call for such a review, initially suggested that it had been decided on by a secret faction, writing in a comment under the discussion item on the committee’s online agenda that it “seems like a lot of decisions are being made by a mysterious group and then brought to committee for rubber stamping.” Another committee member objected to the review on the grounds that the only person qualified to conduct it was the one female committee member who had been on committee the previous year.

The former committee member who proposed the review said that some individuals on the current committee also accused her of “social policing” and conducting a “witch hunt” after trying to initiate a discussion about the treatment of freshers following an incident in which a high-ranking society member made unwanted advances to a first-year student during a night out. “That was really weird given that we had drafted up a policy at the start of the year about how we wanted to interact with freshers and this [attempt to introduce a discussion] definitely didn’t go outside of that,” she said.

The former committee member also pointed to the society’s “rigid hierarchy” as facilitating sexism, as many of the less senior committee members who are expected to do menial tasks such as cleaning glasses are female. “There was an incident this year where a male member of committee was sitting with his feet up on a table and told a female committee member to go under his legs if she wanted to get to the sink,” she said. “Senior male committee members don’t do much of the grunt work and that hierarchy carries over to meetings. I was one of the only female committee members who really spoke out because I was older than others, but it’s very easy to just be shut out if you’re an 18 year old being constantly reminded that you’re lower in the hierarchy. Women are far more likely to be shouted down or have eyes rolled at, and men get much more time to speak at meetings.”

Another female committee member, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed with this. “There’s a systemic problem whereby women who are very opinionated and seem to be pushing some kind of agenda, or are political, are way more likely to be shouted down than men,” she said. However, she said that most objections to equity proposals this year were “procedural” and related to “the idea that someone on committee was dictating to others.”

In a statement yesterday, Coleman acknowledged that he was “disappointed that a number of interpersonal disputes and structural problems have stalled the full establishment of an equity policy in the society, though [he remains] confident that the process is irreversible at this point.”

Trinity News understands that several committee members also felt victimised by a survey on sexism that was circulated to only a few members shortly after the individual who  raised the need for a review of the issue stepped down. It was claimed that the former committee member had orchestrated the survey with a view to unfairly targeting a friend’s opponents in the upcoming Hist elections, though this has been denied by both of its authors, two first-year students who say they were concerned about general trends in the society.

However, other female committee members who spoke to Trinity News said they had not experienced any sexism during their time on committee. One said she did not think that the society’s division of labour was necessarily sexist as “Hist grunt work is done by ordinary committee members instead of officers and the majority of the OCMs are women.” She added: “I think it’s more accurate to say that pretty much everyone gets somewhat spoken over in meetings because meetings full of debaters will have that effect.”

Frida Bowe, the society’s pro-correspondence secretary, said that the so-called rumours that had been circulated were “based on personal tension between individuals of both sexes” rather than sexist behaviour. “I can of course only speak for myself, but I have not been a victim of sexism in the Hist and view it as a society where people definitely make mistakes but also are willing to amend and generally have good intentions,” she said.

Bowe commented: “There was talk about having a review of sexism on committee to analyse the effects of the measures introduced on initiative from women on committee last year and determine if other policies could be implemented. Some felt that would be an unnecessary ripping into the past while others viewed it as necessary; again there were voices from both men and women on both sides of the discussion. Due to no agreement being reached at the meeting, it was wrongly left to the side when other issues arose that seemed at the time more pressing.” However, she added that a review of sexism “may very well still happen”.

A male committee member, who asked to remain anonymous because of an ongoing investigation by the junior dean, told Trinity News that he has been shunned by several members of the society as a result of the rumours referred to in the committee statement released on Wednesday. “I have been ignored and I have not received basic amounts of human decency,” he said. “I have been ostracised by other members for reasons I don’t understand. I have heard that people are spreading rumours about me being a terrible person.”

He said that the way people had mocked the deletion of comments on the Hist Facebook group has had a severe impact on the mental health of its two administrators, who became the “subject of public ridicule” despite being under the impression that they were meant to delete responses. “We knew that rumours had been spread about us, but now people who had claimed to be friends with us openly mocked us on Facebook and it took a resigned member of committee to call for it to stop,” he said.

Campbell Higle, the society’s censor, who is one of its public group’s two administrators, told Trinity News: “The actions of those who participated in the public bullying in the Facebook group are childish but still incredibly harmful. Paradoxically, the response to the statement requesting rumours and bullying to end was people engaging in those very same behaviours. If you are trying to prove that you are not engaging in bullying by subsequently bullying people, online, in a group of 2,000 people, with over 100 members engaging, your words are overshadowed by your actions.”

She said that some of the committee members who had “actively participated in the mocking of us on Facebook” had been present at a meeting before the statement was published in which she, along with other committee members who she said have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, had discussed how “recent events had been extremely damaging to our mental health”.

Another committee member, who asked not to be named, said that bullying has been “rampant” on this year’s committee. He told Trinity News that the split made public during the fallout from Wednesday’s statement has pitted five officers against the auditor and one other officer. “The majority of MCs [junior committee members] have decided to avoid involvement, five women among them,” he said. “From this perspective, it seems apparent that the issues faced on committee are not so much gendered as incredibly fractious and interpersonal. Calls for mediation by the other side were delayed and not addressed by the auditor, and there has still been no sit-down mediation and conflict resolution between the two parties.”

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.