Oxford college run by former equalities head apologises for hosting Christian conference

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David Isaac - Sarah Lee/eyevine
David Isaac - Sarah Lee/eyevine

An Oxford college run by the former head of the equalities watchdog has apologised to students for hosting a Christian conference, The Telegraph can reveal.

In what has been described as the latest incident of “cancel culture” at British Universities, Worcester College acknowledged the "distress" that it had caused students by hosting a Christian Concern training camp, and vowed to use the profits for "diversity initiatives".

The move comes just months after David Isaac took over as the Provost of the college from his role as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

He was previously chairman of LGBT charity Stonewall.

During his time at the helm of the EHRC, it released guidelines for universities and student unions in order to protect freedom of expression amid growing criticism of no-platforming decisions.

Mr Isaac also wrote a blog, Freedom of Speech in Education, in which he set out “core principles”, including “that decisions about speakers and events should seek to promote and protect the right to freedom of expression”.

It is understood that he personally ordered an investigation into the conference after receiving a complaint from the president of a student union.

Christian Concern

Christian Concern held its annual week-long Wilberforce Academy at the beginning of September, whilst Worcester College was closed for the summer break.

The evangelical campaign group says that more than 100 young people were “very warmly welcomed, including by the Provost, received many compliments from the staff, and were not aware of any complaints or concerns”.

Christian Concern has previously been accused of transphobia and homophobia and its members have protested outside abortion clinics.

The 'nature of Islam'

Students are understood to have complained that the curriculum for the residential camp was Islamophobic as it included a discussion on the “nature of Islam” and that speakers were pro-conversion therapy.

In response to the criticism, Worcester College told students that they “deeply regret the distress caused” and were “not aware of the speaker list or programme content in advance”.

They have promised to carry out an “urgent review” of their booking process.

Profits put towards 'equality, diversity, and inclusivity initiatives'

After discussion with student groups they said that they would use the profits from hosting the Wilberforce Academy to fund “dedicated equality, diversity, and inclusivity initiatives”.

“We acknowledge that this was a serious failure that has caused significant distress, and we apologise unreservedly to all those who have been affected,” the spokesman added in a statement to student newspaper The Tab on Tuesday.

The Wilberforce Academy has been held at Oxbridge Colleges for the past 11 years. It is not the first time that it has caused controversy and in 2013 Trinity College also apologised for hosting the camp.

Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, said: “It seems that cancel culture has once again demonstrated the power of its grip in one of our top universities, fuelled by a small group of activists who won't tolerate any view that departs from their own narrow ideology.

“That a college now led by someone who has so often claimed to be a defender of freedom of expression in higher education is rumoured to have capitulated to this aggressive movement is even more concerning.”

She said that they were seeking clarity over the apology, which has not been communicated to them directly by the college.

No event cancelled

A spokesman for the college told The Telegraph: “Worcester College is committed to the protection of freedom of speech. Our apology to students did not impact on this right and no event was cancelled”.

The self-styled “People’s Republic of Worcester College” has previously made headlines for its left-wing stance and was until July led by Prof Kate Tunstall, or “Red Kate” as she is called by fellow dons.

As interim provost, she joined a boycott of Oriel College over their decision to keep a controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes, attempted to abolish the traditions of grace before meals and standing for dons, and installed a multi-faith prayer room as an alternative to chapel.

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