OXFORD, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 06: Prince Albert of Monaco speaks during his visit to the Oxford Union on Feb. 6, 2017 in Oxford, England.
Eamonn M. McCormack—Getty Images
By Madeline Roache
November 20, 2019

The president of the Oxford Union, Brendan McGrath, resigned on Nov. 19 following controversy over the violent removal of a blind student from a debate event last month. At least eight other society members have resigned this week, including the Union’s Chief of Staff and the Director of Operations.

The Union, a prestigious British debating society, had come under fire after the treatment of Ebenezer Azamati, a postgraduate student from Ghana, who was forcefully removed by a security guard at a debate on the motion, “This House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government”.

The University’s Africa society (AfriSoc), which has been campaigning the university for justice for Azamati, said Azamati arrived to the union early to reserve his seat in the chamber before the debate and then went back to his college. It is not unusual for debate-goers to reserve seats, AfriSoc’s President Nwamaka Ogbonna tells TIME, and when no seats are available in the debate chamber, standing is permitted. But when Azamati, who has been blind since birth, tried to return to his seat, he was confronted by a security guard contracted to work at the event. One video of the ensuing incident shows two men grappling with Azamati as they try to remove him from his seat, while he is seen clinging to the bench. The guards’ use of force was “disproportionate,” another student in attendance at the debate told CNN.

Initially, Azamati was charged with violent misconduct and expelled from the Union. “It was appalling. No one deserves to be treated in the matter. From the beginning of the case, the union appeared to be biased,” says Ogbonna.

Azamati appealed against the Union’s claims on Nov. 16. The Union later withdrew its charges and apologized “unreservedly” to the Africa Society in a public statement “for the distress and any reputational damage which the publication of the charge may have caused him.” The Union then reinstated Azamati’s membership.

McGrath was set for a vote of impeachment, but instead decided to step down from his position. On Tuesday, he said that he was apologizing “profusely and unqualifiedly.” In a resignation letter posted on the Union’s Facebook account, he wrote that he was advised to bring a disciplinary case against Azamati on behalf of the security guard involved but had failed to recognize the wider “institutional problems” highlighted by the incident. “Fundamentally, it is the president’s job to ensure that every member feels welcome at the Oxford Union. This is a goal I have manifestly failed to reach,” he said.

Azamati told the BBC his treatment left him feeling “unwelcome in the Union, Oxford and even the country.”

Ogbonna says McGrath’s resignation sends an important message that there are “consequences for leaders who behave irresponsibly.” But AfriSoc still has outstanding demands, she adds, including punishment for security guards and compensation for Azamati. Reached for comment by TIME, the Union referred further questions to the university.

While describing the Union as an “entirely independent club” outside their governance, the university said in a statement on Monday that it shared the widespread outrage at Azamati’s treatment and that it is “pressing hard for answers on how it intends to make amends to Mr Azamati and what further steps it will take to avoid such an incident being repeated.”

In his resignation letter, McGrath called for an independent review into the Union’s policies on disability and a professional review of staff training and security system. Cherwell, Oxford University’s student newspaper, reported Wednesday that his replacement, Acting President Sara Dube, has already “called an emergency committee meeting looking into the controversy.”

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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