‘The Oxford Lynch Mob’

At his blog, Jeff Ketland has posted the names of individuals at Oxford he claims constitute ‘a lynch mob’ against him. The people he identifies are mostly grad students. Ketland claims all the people he identifies were part of a malicious smear campaign which:

harassed a family, including even a 4-year old child, out of their home; and then the smear campaigners authored a harassing letter repeated false allegations while making offensive extra-judicial demands and got it signed by 135 people.

 In memory of this outburst of vigilante harassment in Oxford, the Oxford lynch mob members are listed here, denoted LM1, LM2, etc.


The people identified are in fact simply the signatories of this open letter which expressed concern about the university’s handling of the situation. Whether or not some of these individuals also harassed Ketland, it’s definitely not the case that they all did. (I know some of them personally, and that’s simply not the kind of behavior they would engage in.) And it’s definitely not the case that the letter itself constitutes harassment or a ‘smear campaign’.

Ketland’s post seems to constitute a worrying form of retaliation.

20 thoughts on “‘The Oxford Lynch Mob’

  1. It is quite right and just to explain that there is no evidence for the claim that all 135 who signed the open letter are part of a ‘lynch mob’, but readers, do be careful not to assume that there was *anyone at all* who formed part of a so-called ‘smear campaign’. There seems to be no evidence for this other than Ketland’s own claims, and I for one have not seen him offer any substantial grounds for his point of view other than the simple claim that he was very upset by what happened.
    It would be a mistake to conclude that because not all were part of a smear campaign, *some* of these 135 were part of a smear campaign. I have not seen any evidence that there was a campaign of harassment or attempts to smear Ketland at all. It would be an injustice then if it was assumed that some unidentified members of this group were harassers.

  2. I saw this today and was completely horrified (though not surprised given his earlier posts on the matter). Just one very small point: m-phi is not Ketland’s personal blog (I guess the post doesn’t say that, but it seems to imply it). Wanted to point that out because it is actually a really cool blog (or at least it was until Ketland started using it for this sort of thing) with lots of contributors and both interesting mathematical-ish philosophy content and useful CFPs/that sort of thing that are often not posted elsewhere.

  3. It’s difficult to see how the open letter from March 5 2014 could contain any *false* allegations about Jeff Ketland, as he claims, since the open letter doesn’t contain *any* allegations about him. Indeed, the letter seems at pains to qualify all of its statements about Ketland so as to not accuse him of anything.

    In the comments on the blog post that’s been linked to above, Ketland — in an attempt to substantiate his claim that he was harassed by all the signatories of the open letter — claims that whether something counts as hostile environment harassment hinges on whether the victim *feels* that he or she has been harassed. It’s an interesting (and not entirely implausible) claim, but I presume Ketland doesn’t really want to endorse it, unless he’s eager to hoist himself with his own petard.

  4. anonymous grad student, I agree that m-phi is in general an excellent and helpful blog. I called it Ketland’s blog because I’m pretty sure he’s the blog owner (and the person with ultimate control over the content, hence the post remaining up after many contributors saw it and were horrified).

    Anonymous, well said.

  5. It’s good that it’s gone, but nonetheless disturbing that it was ever up there. I mean, Ketland will be teaching in the faculty where many of these people that he accused of being part of a lynch mob are still studying. Great for an atmosphere conducive to learning eh. There is a difference between merely taking a post down and issuing a correction or apology. Ketland used a professional platform to make these accusations. Highly unprofessional.

  6. Lockwood has provided a strong argument that the blog post constitutes retaliation or victimisation which is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. But why did she think she is the person to provide a public description of the content of private emails between Ketland and Charlotte? Is that anyone else’s business? What does it have to do with the issue of whether the 135 students were being victimised? Please keep personal stuff personal.

  7. There are two aspects to the (in)famous open letter which, it seems to me, had better been kept apart. One is the complaint about the way the Coursier case was handled by the philosophy faculty. It is sad to see that it was obviously the signatories’ last resort to write an open letter to demand information. Sometimes secrecy does not protect but actually constitutes the source of much harm; from what we have since heard, this was apparently the case here.

    But the other aspect is the way the letter implicitly describes Jeff Ketland as a danger to his students. This is skillfully dressed in a way that is legally water tight, but what do you read the following as saying? To me, when I first read it and now that I re-read it, it translates as: ‘This horrible man is still out there – shriek! – He is going to harrass us all! Lock him away!!’

    “Charlotte’s alleged harasser, Dr Jeffrey Ketland, remains an employee of the University, and has had institutionally mediated contact with students since the University began its review.

    Our concerns are twofold. We worry about the lack of information communicated to students. We further worry about the decision to keep Dr Ketland in institutionally mediated contact with students after the review began.[…]

    Secondly, it is strongly in the interests of students not to be placed at undue risk of harassment. It seems to us that when harassment allegations are made against a member of staff, the University should limit their institutionally mediated contact with students whilst a review occurs. We think that this is required by the University’s duty of care towards its students. We understand that this duty could have been met by the University codes of practice, which allow for suspending staff with pay during a review process. We refer to University Statute XII: Part D, 19 (4) and section 8.2 of the Staff handbook (Academic-related staff). Yet after the review began, Dr Ketland continued to have institutionally mediated contact with students. In future reviews of harassment allegations, we strongly urge the swift adoption of such a suspension policy.”

    One thing is that in politics (any PPE-ists among the signatories?), this letter would be described as an act of securitization (cf. Barry Buzan 1998). Another thing is that from a legal perspective it should be noted that the signatories did not know whether Jeff Ketland had harassed anyone or not, so by the legal standards we hopefully all want to see upheld, they should have treated him as innocent (which, moreover, it meanwhile very much seems he is). Now, imagine publishing a text, complete with a person’s full name, implicaturing that he constitutes a public danger when in fact he is innocent – never has harassed anyone nor has any intention to do so. Graduate students at Oxford are adults in their twenties and among the brightest in the country. Can they not be expected to waste a thought about what publishing a letter like that will do to the life of the man whose name they send around the world like this? Is this not “smearing”? Should they not be held responsible for what they do to other people, but instead be treated as if they were ignorant little children? As of when do we start to regard people as liable for what they do – and who will bear the burden of repairing any damage they do before they get to that stage?

    I did not see the M-Phi blog, but if all it contained was a list of the signatories of that open letter, I don’t see why someone who has every reason to be very upset indeed should not point to their names which they, after all, published themselves when they signed that open letter. That said, M-Phi should keep to philosophy. There are more suitable blogs around for this kind of message, including this one.

  8. AC, I find your comment puzzling. I’m not sure I understand it. Are you saying that because the legal standard of “innocent until proven guilty” members of the public at large (as opposed to members of the judiciary), should treat those alleged of wrong-doing as innocent in the sense that we should not ask the respective communities which we belong to (in this case, a university) to take reasonable steps to mitigate risks? Is it wrong for newspapers to print the names of those who have been arrested under criminal suspicion because they have not yet been tried? Or are you saying something more subtle than a first reading of your comment would imply?

  9. AC: as you say, you did not see the post. It contained much more than a list of the signers. It described some very specific acts of harassment and cyberbullying, blamed these on an “Oxford lynch mob”, which he identified as the full list of signers. The strong implication was that these were the harassers. Even if you think people were wrong to sign the letter, that doesn’t mean they are also guilty of cyberstalking, etc.

  10. Me Ketland has engaged in this sort of behaviour before. Before he came to Oxford, Mr Ketland launched a tirade on Facebook against students who opposed the Iraq war. The tirade – spread over dozens of posts in a thread on a student’s wall – included vile insults directed against his own students, including very obscene language and aggressive posturing. He swiftly deleted his comments, but those involved in the episode remember them well.

  11. AC, in your thoughts that the Open Letter smeared Ketland’s name, this overlooks a crucial fact, that the case had already been extensively covered in national and international press, as well as in various locations online. The Open Letter contained no new information other than taking up what was already in the public domain, that there had been allegations made. So the case that it constituted smearing seems very weak indeed. It was written in very measured language.

    Furthermore, I do think that you misunderstand some of the fears and motivations behind the letter,and hence misinterpret it when you translate it as ‘please lock this horrible man away’. Please try to appreciate how it feels to many people to be in a situation where institutional means of combating harassment do appear to be cumbersome and opaque. You surely must understand this – there are so many cases in other contexts where institutions have shown that they do not have efficient or adequate mechanisms for dealing with such problems. In addition, there is a serious problem that the means of redress at the University were hard to understand and to negotiate (and indeed, the University is trying to address this). In the face of worries that there is, *in general*, inadequate protection for students from cases of harassment, it is entirely understandable that this creates a general climate of worry. In case after case after case, institutions have been found wanting. I think this more adequately captured the feelings behind the letter than your interpretation.

  12. Drongo Hobbes;

    Here and elsewhere you have implied that these students were intentionally out to smear and harass Dr. Ketland. Yet, at least two of them have come out, in Dr. Ketland’s own post (now taken down) no less, as explicitly saying that they were not concerned with Dr. Ketland per se, but rather with the way the administration handled the issue. Should we believe that those individuals were deliberately lying?

  13. I’m an Oxford faculty member, and I was present at the meeting that was organised after the connection of Dr Ketland to Charlotte Coursier came out in the media (Daily Mail piece etc). The students felt dismayed they had to learn this from the media, and they did not know to what extent the harassment allegations were warranted, so it seemed quite reasonable to express concern about whether this faculty member could continue to meet with students.
    In hindsight, it was a bit insensitive for the meeting to start out with one man (Chris Shields, the faculty board’s director) to address the students about the epistemic problem of harassment claims, and asking them to imagine themselves in the situation where they are falsely accused. As one student said, imagine you’re in the situation of a student whose concerns aren’t addressed. Students went away with a sense of not being taken seriously; the result was the infamous letter – which, I think, was not motivated by sentiments against Dr Ketland, but against the way the faculty handled the case and treated the students.
    There was no statement either when Dr Ketland was reinstated – again, we had to hear this from the media.

  14. [Moderator’s note: Drongo Hobbes wishes to express his frustration with the way his comment was moderated. He does not believe his original comment implied what the moderator believes it implied. Drongo, if you keep posting inflammatory comments here, the moderators will keep editing them. It’s our blog.]

  15. It seems evident that the veil of secrecy created by the faculty board has not protected the integrity of either party. (Has it served any other purpose?) It has moreover misled people to believe either that Dr Ketland constituted a danger or that publishing the implicature that he did would impress the faculty or the university in any way. The former seems a weird thing to believe given what people did know. If the intention was the latter, it certainly served people who love their regular bit of Oxford bashing, it exacerbated the shit storm against Ketland beyond anything the Daily Mail could do, but has it done anything that would serve the students in any way?

    On a more general point, in light of many horrible stories that have come up over the last months:
    If people think that the law is only made for judges (are you serious or are you being sarcastic?) and at the same time report crimes to universities rather than the police and thereby the judges, that means that the law will not be applied, fullstop. That in turn means that perpetrators as well as those mistakenly taken to be perpetrators will not be tried according to the rules of due process and victims will be at the mercy of people whose top priority is their university’s reputation (and possibly the interests of their buddies).
    If then people channel their frustration into insufficiently considered outcries and moreover don’t understand the difference between Facebook, where posts are visible to a limited number of people and can be deleted and people can be blacklisted, blocked, or de-friended, and a blog that is accessible to the whole world, we find ourselves in situations where irreparable damage is done to innocent people, and even people who do deserve some sort of sanction are “punished” in a way completely out of proportion to what they did. If we allow this to happen, standards of justice in academia will in effect be lowered to medieval levels. Never mind what this does to everyday relations among people in our world.

  16. Acucoin, you make some very good points about the veil of secrecy and how damaging this can be to justice. But just as a matter of clarifying the position of the Philosophy Faculty at Oxford, such matters are governed by the central administration of the University and the Faculty has been bound to follow rules set by the University. Please note that the Faculty did not, and cannot, investigate such a case; it’s out of their hands. Members of the Faculty were bound by the University not to reveal details. This then did have many of the unfortunate consequences that you outline, including impacts upon trust, and the escalation of rumours and innuendo. Understandable but entirely unhelpful. A court of law at least has the great advantage, as you say, of revealing argument and evidence where it may be subject to public scrutiny.

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