Cambridge don accused of sexual harassment under investigation again

Trinity Hall investigating Peter Hutchinson for allegedly breaching sanctions imposed in 2015 by attending lecture

A Cambridge don is under renewed investigation after allegedly breaching sanctions placed on him two years ago when his college investigated allegations that he had sexually harassed undergraduates.

Peter Hutchinson, a non-stipendiary fellow at Trinity Hall, was banned in September 2015 from teaching undergraduates and attending social events where they were present.

Trinity Hall, whose alumni include Stephen Hawking and the Oscar-winning actor Rachel Weisz, is investigating whether he breached these conditions by attending the Milestone lecture at the college last month where undergraduates were present.

The Guardian has seen a college document confirming that an investigation into the alleged breach is ongoing. The college did not comment but it is understood that if Hutchinson attended a lecture at Trinity Hall where undergraduates were present this could be a breach of the restrictions he agreed to in 2015 and he would be subject to further investigation.

The new investigation comes two years after a formal complaint of sexual harassment against Hutchinson, then a modern languages teacher at Trinity Hall.

In an email to the college’s senior tutor, Clare Jackson, in August 2015, 10 students detailed 10 incidents of “inappropriate sexual and sexist comments” they alleged Hutchinson had made in 2014 and 2015 in seminars, supervisions, other teaching sessions, and social events at the college.

Jackson responded stating that both she and the college master recognised the “seriousness and the formal nature of your complaint”, immediately confirming that none of them would be supervised by Hutchinson again.

The 10 incidents included asking students in a seminar how long sex lasted in their experience, and saying women who have a lot of children were “sex mad”.

One complainant told the Guardian: “I felt very uncomfortable because it was someone in a position of power. You laugh nervously but inside you’re feeling humiliated.”

In September 2015, Jackson wrote to the complainants outlining the outcome of a formal investigation. She informed them that Hutchinson apologised for “any distress students may have experienced during the instances cited” and “accepted … that some of the words and actions cited in your complaint were … inappropriate and could legitimately be construed as harassment”.

As a result, Hutchinson “agreed to withdraw permanently from supervising Trinity Hall undergraduates and from attending social events, such as informal drinks parties and formal dinners at which Trinity Hall undergraduates will be present”. Jackson added: “I now regard this matter as closed in terms of formal procedure.”

Another complainant told the Guardian that although the 2015 investigation was respectful, she was “very disappointed that the action they took was just to privately remove him from contact with undergraduates”.

She was also unhappy that articles in two college publications, published after the 2015 investigation, paid tribute to Hutchinson, one describing him as “the linchpin of Trinity Hall’s teaching in MML [medieval and modern languages]” and “unfailingly polite and informed”. “It all felt like a bit of a hush up,” she added.

A university spokeswoman said the article referred to Hutchinson’s retirement from a voluntary role he held as a member of the college’s finance committee.

Following inquiries by the Guardian, the university issued a public statement about the 2015 case on Monday, without informing the complainants.

In the statement Hutchinson said “the students who had made the complaint ... expressed their satisfaction with the action taken”. He added: “I would like to take this opportunity to publicly apologise to those students. I also want to apologise to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted comment by me that they felt crossed the line in any way.”

The college, contradicting the information provided to the complainants, described the 2015 investigation into Hutchinson’s conduct as “informal”. It added: “Trinity Hall remains dedicated to maintaining a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment that allows our students to flourish.”

The second complainant told the Guardian: “The action they took was entirely insufficient. We see him around the college. I’ve seen him in the corridor.”

The case has come to light weeks after Cambridge University launched its Breaking the Silence campaign, an institution-wide strategy to tackling sexual harassment.

Students can seek help or report harassment via a new website which also gives advice on how staff and students are expected to behave in the context of a zero tolerance approach to sexual misconduct.

Sarah d’Ambrumenil, head of the office for student conduct, complaints and appeals at Cambridge, said all serious allegations were dealt with centrally, while “low level harassment” may continue to be dealt with at college level.

“It’s about increasing transparency and consistency in information sharing, so everyone is clear what options are available to them,” she said.


David Batty, Sally Weale and Martin Coulter

The GuardianTramp