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Mary Rambaran-Olm spoke out about the allegations against Andy Orchard for years. Why didn’t anyone listen to her?

Accusations of sexual misconduct against Orchard came to light five months ago
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Content warning: This article contains mentions of violence against women, and discussions of sexual harassment and abuse in academia.

In 2014, Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm sat in front of the hiring committee for an assistant professor position at a European university. Rambaran-Olm was the only person of colour in the room, but that was not a new experience for her. She’s one of very few people of colour — let alone women of colour — in the field of early medieval studies. 

All the people on that hiring committee were directly affiliated with the university — except Andy Orchard, a medieval studies scholar who served as the provost of Trinity College and the director of the Centre for Medieval Studies in his 13 years at U of T. He left U of T in 2013 to join the University of Oxford as the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon. The university had flown Orchard in to help with hiring the candidate. 

When asked in an interview with The Varsity if she got the job, Rambaran-Olm responded, “No, I mean, obviously not.” In a private conversation, a member of the hiring committee gave Rambaran-Olm feedback on the interview, which they told her was “off the record.” They said that the deciding factor against hiring Rambaran-Olm was that the department would “[struggle to] justify to their students that [Rambaran-Olm] was an ‘Anglo-Saxonist.’ ” 

Rambaran-Olm had a number of scholarly publications prior to 2014, when the interview happened. The same year, she also published a book about the poem “Descent into Hell.” Currently, she is a provost’s postdoctoral fellow at UTM researching race in early medieval England. 

In an email to The Varsity, Orchard wrote that he has “never been on [a hiring committee] where a candidate’s race was discussed at all.” He added that such remarks would have been “deplored.” 

Ultimately, the university offered the job — which had been advertised as a position for early-career scholars like Rambaran-Olm — to a white woman who already had tenure.

Allegations made public

In October 2021, Al Jazeera published a six-part investigation on abuse at UK universities. The first of the six podcast episodes was about allegations of abuse and harassment against Orchard during his time at Cambridge, U of T, and Oxford. 

Dr. Erik Wade, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bonn in Germany, alleged that “[Orchard] has been the most notorious sexual predator in [the field of] Old English studies, if not in medieval studies, generally for decades.”

Al Jazeera reported that Orchard denied all allegations of harassment and abuse. His lawyers sent a five-page statement to Al Jazeera, but said that it was not for publication. Orchard declined to respond to other questions from The Varsity, but noted that he continues to deny allegations of sexual harassment and bullying.

Five months after the report, Orchard is still listed as a professor on the University of Oxford’s website, although The Varsity has been unable to confirm whether or not he is currently teaching, nor did Oxford respond to a question asking for clarification. 

After the Al Jazeera report came out, scholars in the field of medieval studies published open letters and petitions asking organizations, journals, and universities to censure Orchard. The Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship published a statement demanding that the University of Oxford examine its harassment policies and investigate Orchard’s conduct.

But Rambaran-Olm had already known about the allegations against Orchard for over a decade. So had countless others. She first learned of Orchard’s reputation when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Calgary. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s the biggest name that I know of in the field,’ ” she said. “And also, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll have to protect myself.’ ”

Since then, she has tried her best to avoid Orchard. But she has only been able to do so much — in such a small field where he was such a big name, it was almost inevitable that she would interact with him.

Rambaran-Olm has been publicly speaking about Orchard’s allegedly predatory behaviour since 2018, three years before Al Jazeera published its report. She helped Bertie Harrison-Broninski — a UK-based journalist who was working at Cherwell, Oxford’s student newspaper — to investigate the allegations against Orchard when no one was talking about them in public. She also urged the International Society for the study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME) — then known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) — to revoke Orchard’s lifetime membership. 

Over the last three months, The Varsity has conducted a dozen interviews with scholars, activists, and journalists. In most of these conversations, a consistent theme has emerged: Rambaran-Olm has made significant efforts to hold Orchard accountable for the allegations made against him. She has pushed for change within the field of medieval studies and academia at large. Yet over the course of years of advocacy, few people listened to her — and when the story broke, her labour and efforts went quietly unrecognized. 

Silence in the field

During the 2016–2017 academic year, Jillian Kern, who was a master’s student at the University of Oxford, took a required class taught by Orchard. As the year progressed, Kern and her fellow students felt increasingly uncomfortable in the class. She said in an interview with The Varsity that Orchard would make sexist jokes about how medieval men were lucky to be able to rape women without consequences.

Inappropriate in-class conduct has also been detailed in coverage of the allegations against Orchard. A former student of Orchard told the Toronto Star that Orchard made sexualized comments while teaching. In the Al Jazeera podcast, another former student — who chose to stay anonymous — mentioned that Orchard’s ‘jokes’ during classes would make students uncomfortable, but they would feel pressured to laugh along. 

Once, Kern recalled that she and some of her classmates approached a faculty member in their office. They told the professor that they wanted to discuss something related to Orchard’s class. Before they could mention any details, Kern said the professor “jumped up, looked around, closed their door, and came back in and said, ‘I’ve been so worried about this — has he touched you?’ ”

Kern also had conversations with fellow students in the program where they would explain that they were changing their research proposals to topics they weren’t as interested in just to avoid working with Orchard. Kern tweeted publicly about Orchard’s alleged sexism and misconduct in 2018, after she left the UK. Kern mentioned that she only feels safe enough to talk about these experiences now because she is not on the same continent as him.

She remembers receiving warnings about Orchard when she first arrived at Oxford. “On one hand, it was better than not knowing. But it was traumatic on its own,” she said.

In an email to The Varsity, an Oxford spokesperson wrote, “When concerns are raised, they are carefully, sensitively and rigorously investigated and the University has a framework of support in place for staff and students who feel they have been subject to harassment.” The spokesperson further wrote, “The allegation in the Al-Jazeera podcast that the University has not responded to or investigated complaints is untrue.”

When Orchard left U of T, Centre for Medieval Studies Director John Magee told U of T News, “There’s no replacing such a scholar and teacher, but we’ll make every effort to sustain the scholarly standards exemplified by Andy.” Five years earlier, in 2008, a student had confided in U of T Professor Suzanne Akbari that Orchard had harassed her at Mullins Irish Pub, which is a five-minute walk from St. Michael’s College. As Akbari told the Toronto Star, she had discussed this with Magee, among others, at the time. 

In 2007, six years before he left U of T, a Search Committee composed of 11 members struck by Trinity selected Orchard as the provost of Trinity College. That same year, at a conference, Rambaran-Olm saw a woman giving Orchard a handjob under the dinner table. Everyone in her immediate vicinity saw what was happening, but no one batted an eye. 

Rambaran-Olm was seated on the table adjacent to Orchard’s, and she and the other graduate students at her table were horrified at what they saw. It was the first time that some of the students were at an academic conference. Seeing that incident happen in front of everyone and noticing that no one said anything sent a terrible message to these early-career scholars, Rambaran-Olm said. As she put it, “You’re traumatized in a different way.”

She remembers wondering if she would have to do similar things to advance in the field. 

Rambaran-Olm’s advocacy

Most of the people who talked to The Varsity about Orchard’s abuse mentioned the work that Rambaran-Olm has done to advocate for survivors. In an interview with The Varsity, Kathryn Maude — an assistant professor in the department of English at the American University of Beirut — pointed out that “Mary Rambaran-Olm, who is a Black female scholar, who has been really especially online harassed but also personally threatened by people… just hasn’t had the same respect in the field as someone like Orchard.”

In 2017, Rambaran-Olm was elected as the second vice-president of the ISSEME. Soon after taking office, she began advocating for the organization to change its name from the ‘International Society of Anglo-Saxonists,’ adopt a sexual harassment policy, and strip Andy Orchard of his lifetime membership. Rambaran-Olm had been hearing about students’ and scholars’ experiences of alleged abuse by Orchard throughout her career, and had been lobbying the board about these changes since the start of 2019. It was appalling to her that Orchard had the honour of a lifetime membership of the ISSEME — a title that is bestowed upon a rare few.

About supporting the alleged victims of harassment and abuse, Rambaran-Olm said, “I felt that it was important for victims to know… that we believe them, and that we were trying to make this organization and the conferences a safer venue for them. And having him have access for his life was not going to make any of his victims over decades feel safe, or feel welcome.”

In August 2019, during a conference in New Mexico, Rambaran-Olm had a conversation with a former executive director of the organization — a conversation that made her realize that the ISSEME was simply not willing to listen or try to be better. 

At a dinner with the executive director, Rambaran-Olm continued to press her to initiate a discussion about Orchard’s behaviour at the board meeting the next day. Rambaran-Olm had been asking the organization to revoke Orchard’s membership but instead of acknowledging the long-standing allegations, she recalled that the director started off with “Mary, you’re gonna hate me for this,” before revealing that she had invited Orchard onto the ISSEME’s advisory board. 

Rambaran-Olm told The Varsity that when she had the conversation with the executive director, Orchard had already been offered the position and he had refused. “I don’t think that it mattered that he did say ‘no,’ I think it mattered that she asked him in the first place,” Rambaran-Olm said.

“There wasn’t much to say to her, because what do you say when someone has done that? What I felt afterwards was that she betrayed all of us.”

Meanwhile, in the summer of 2018, a few months before Rambaran-Olm was elected as the second vice-president of the ISSEME, Harrison-Broninski started investigating allegations against Orchard. As a student journalist investigating a professor in his own university, he struggled getting academics at Oxford to talk to him. Rambaran-Olm contacted numerous scholars, but most refused interviews. 

Harrison-Broninski had trouble getting his story published because of legal concerns, and because of the fact that Cherwell didn’t have an in-house lawyer at the time. Still, Rambaran-Olm contacted some newspapers like The Guardian and The Washington Post to try to get them to publish his story. 

After Harrison-Broninski had been working on the investigation for two years, Al Jazeera got wind of Orchard’s reputation in the field. By that point, Harrison-Broninski had realized that not many people at Oxford were willing to talk to a student journalist — not when the repercussions involved backlash from a well-respected scholar in their field.

It was only after he graduated from Oxford that Harrison-Broninski found out what had been happening behind the scenes during the years he had been working on the story. He filed a subject access request to Oxford for emails that mentioned his name. Upon receiving the emails, he discovered that several people he had contacted had been sending his emails to Orchard and Oxford. One person even recorded their conversation with him without his knowledge, and sent the recording to Oxford’s former Head of University Communications Stephen Rouse. 

The emails — which The Varsity has obtained — contain communications from the Oxford Public Relations department telling people not to engage with Harrison-Broninski. In one email, Rouse wrote to the English faculty chair about an email that Harrison-Broninski sent to a professor. “They are certainly persistent and seem committed to running a story of some sort. Is it worth the three of us meeting, perhaps with HR and legal, to discuss our options?”

One academic forwarded an email from Harrison-Broninski to Orchard, writing, “I’ve just received this rather disturbing email looking for salacious gossip about you, and thought I’d better forward it on lest you were unaware of the situation.”

Such institutional and peer support for Orchard has slowed the process of bringing this story to light. Orchard’s allegedly predatory behaviour was known as an ‘open secret’ for decades, yet inaction from universities is part of the reason why he remained in teaching positions for years. 

In all this struggle, there have been a few scholars who have done instrumental work in holding Orchard accountable. Wade mentioned that Rambaran-Olm and Eileen Joy, among others, “really put enormous amounts of their resources and time for years, since at least 2019, into getting this story to come out.”

Dr. Eileen Joy, a medieval studies scholar and the director of publishing house Punctum Books, was the first person to publicly accuse Orchard of sexual harassment in 2018. Her Twitter account shows various tweets she wrote at the time saying that the field of medieval studies needed to recognize Orchard’s concerning behaviour. 

In her first tweets about Orchard, she alleged that he has “AGGRESSIVELY harassed women in the fields of Anglo-Saxon & Old English studies for YEARS.” She tagged University of Cambridge, Centre for Medieval Studies at U of T, and University of Oxford — the three institutions he has worked at in the last three decades. In the responses, a number of other students and scholars, including Kern, mentioned being uncomfortable around Orchard.

Joy and Rambaran-Olm’s advocacy work included helping Harrison-Broninski find people that he could talk to. They personally reached out to numerous people asking them to speak with him. In an interview with The Varsity, Harrison-Broninski said, “If we had anyone like Mary at Oxford, the story could have gone a very different way, and it could be out years sooner.”

“There’s the idea that I’m just not an authority, but also just not to be believed.” CAROLINE BELLAMY/THE VARSITY

Aftermath and media coverage

“I felt like a token [at the ISSEME], that I was there just as a symbol,” Rambaran-Olm told The Varsity. A month after her conversation about Orchard with the ISSEME’s executive director, at the Race Before Race conference in Washington DC, she stepped up on the stage and announced her official resignation from the ISSEME. 

Rambaran-Olm’s resignation unexpectedly caused a domino effect. Soon after she resigned, other members of the ISSEME and its board began to resign. Within a short period of time, the number of board members had halved. 

Wade was one of the former ISSEME members who resigned, and he also pulled a paper that had been accepted for publication by the ISSEME. In his resignation email to the organization’s listserv, he wrote, “I cannot in good conscience be associated with an organization that does not take seriously racist statements, death threats against scholars of color, and sexual predators.”

Numerous organizations released statements in support of Rambaran-Olm. In a public statement, Medievalists of Color wrote, “Dr. Rambaran-Olm’s willingness to endure the heavy intellectual and emotional toll exacted by ISAS’s environment testifies to her longstanding and brave commitment to inclusivity and community in that organization.” Other organizations that have published statements supporting her include Queerdievalists, Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, and The Material Collective.

This collective pressure is what led to the ISSEME board’s vote on its name change. In 2020, the ISSEME also formalized its sexual harassment policy. But even when it made all these changes — the ones that Rambaran-Olm had advocated for before resigning — the organization did not acknowledge her work in the public statements it put out. 

Rambaran-Olm wrote in an email to The Varsity that the only comments she has seen from ISSEME board members have been “disparaging ones.” She wrote, “No one has ever reached out privately or publicly with thanks for anything.”

The ISSEME’s recent statements regarding the changes made to the organization after Rambaran-Olm’s resignation do not mention her efforts.

As one of the few people who have been willing to talk about Orchard’s alleged abuse since the beginning, Rambaran-Olm has faced heightened cyberbullying and harassment since the story came out. But she’s noticed that, as a woman of colour, she doesn’t have credibility. She said, “It’s not just that I’m a woman, but I’m a woman of colour and a Black woman… There’s a lot of intersections in there that just work against me.”

“There’s the idea that I’m just not an authority, but also just not to be believed.”

Rambaran-Olm has faced a lot of backlash for her advocacy around the culture of sexual harassment in academia, especially in regard to allegations against Orchard. She mentioned that some “alt-right leaning” medieval scholars have made a Facebook group where they organize against those who are advocating for change in the field. Rambaran-Olm has been one of their primary targets, and some members of that group have doxxed her parents. 

“There’s so much opposition,” Rambaran-Olm said about the work of marginalized people in bringing this story forward. “And people are just going to the extreme now to silence us.”

Rambaran-Olm has also faced professional setbacks because of her advocacy. Last year, she announced a book contract about the far right and medieval studies. Members of the Facebook group “contacted the publisher, and [her] contract was revoked within a day.”

Since October 2021, there has been a lot of media coverage about the Orchard story. However, most of the scholars contacted by The Varsity — who had been speaking out about allegations against Orchard since day one — were disappointed by the coverage. Rambaran-Olm and Joy noted that these stories have mainly featured tenured professors and academics who did not speak out years ago. Even though, as Rambaran-Olm mentioned, “It is on the backs of grad students, early career researchers, and vulnerable and marginalized scholars” that the story did come out. 

“These other news articles are not attentive to the way that this most affects women of colour. They don’t talk about racism,” said Wade.

Rambaran-Olm said that the intersectionality of the story has been erased. Moreover, racism in the field of medieval studies has hindered racialized scholars from openly discussing their experiences. Rambaran-Olm described an incident where a white person told her they would be vocal about issues in the field once they get tenure. “[A scholar] had sent me a message and said, ‘I am on the cusp of getting tenure, and then I will speak out.’ And I was thinking, ‘well, people like myself have been suffering from racism in the field for years. Why do we have to wait till you get tenure when we can’t even get on the ladder?’ ”

Racism within the field has led to scholars of colour leaving academia. Rambaran-Olm, after making so many waves in the field, doesn’t see a future in academia anymore. Talking about her experiences as a woman of colour and the backlash she has faced, she said that she is planning her exit “partly because we can’t breathe.”

“I went in with the idea that this field and this space was for everybody. And I didn’t discover until I was in it that I was wrong,” said Rambaran-Olm. “There weren’t very many people who looked like me in the field.” 

Her advocacy comes from a place of feeling like an outsider. She said that she doesn’t think she is breaking the glass ceiling — but she sees her work as putting cracks in the glass, so that women of colour after her can break it someday. 

At the end of one of her interviews with The Varsity, she said, “I hate talking about [Andy Orchard].” She laughed. “It’s sort of inevitable at this point.”

John Magee declined The Varsity’s request for comment. Stephen Rouse did not respond to The Varsity’s request for comment.


If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence or harassment at U of T:

  • Visit svpscentre.utoronto.ca for information, contact details, and hours of operation for the tri-campus Sexual Violence Prevention & Support Centre. Centre staff can be reached by phone at 416-978-2266 or by email at [email protected].
  • Call Campus Safety Special Constable Service to make a report at 416-978-2222 (for U of T St. George and U of T Scarborough) or 905-569-4333 (for U of T Mississauga)
  • Call the Women’s College Hospital Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre at 416-323-6040
  • Call the Scarborough Grace Sexual Assault Care Centre at 416-495-2555
  • Call the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 866-863-0511

 

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