Cambridge scholar ‘bullied’ female colleague by saying ‘shut up’ and ‘sit down, woman’

·4 min read
Prof Joe Herbert and Dr Bronwen Everill
Prof Joe Herbert and Dr Bronwen Everill

A University of Cambridge professor was found to have bullied and harassed a junior female colleague after telling her to “shut up” and “sit down, woman”.

Joe Herbert, an emeritus professor of neuroscience, was accused of behaving in a sexist and belittling way towards Dr Bronwen Everill, the director of the university’s Centre for African Studies, during a row over a controversial slavery report.

The allegation was deemed “well-founded” by the grievance committee of Gonville & Caius College, where Prof Herbert is a life fellow, according to a report seen by Varsity, the student newspaper.

The professor, who has written a book on how testosterone influences male behaviour, was accused of repeated “shushing” and telling Dr Everill that she was “not in charge here” during a meeting in which he objected to a report on the college’s links to slavery.

Gonville & Caius was one of several colleges which launched investigations into legacies of slavery and coerced labour following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

Dr Everill oversaw the report, which was written by Dr Nicholas Bell-Romero, a postdoctoral researcher. Dr Bell-Romero, who was hired on a year-long contract, quit after accusing dons of censorship when they requested clarifications.

‘I told you to shut up’

Prof Herbert’s research interests include hormones and brain function, risk factors for depression, and the formation of new nerve cells in the adult brain.

In 2015, he published a book called Testosterone: Sex, Power and the Will to Win, which explores how testosterone is involved in driving aggression, competitiveness and risk-taking.

Following a meeting to discuss the slavery report with Dr Everill, Prof Herbert emailed her saying “you are clearly avoiding any rational discussion and one can only draw an obvious conclusion from that”, Varsity reported.

In a different email, he is said to have written: “I told you to shut up because you were shrieking at me. You weren’t attempting to say anything. Do you still refuse a decent conversation?”

In response to the complaint, he is reported to have told the grievance committee: “I don’t think the term ‘woman’ is a term of abuse, is it?”

The college is understood to have asked Prof Herbert to apologise. However, it is understood that no further action has been taken.

Dr Everill attacked the college on Monday for what she said was its “official take” that “it’s regrettable that Varsity found out”, rather than it being regrettable “that the fellow involved behaved this way in the first place”.

Controversy over slavery report

The Telegraph revealed in June that dons had accused Gonville & Caius of hiring a “woke activist” to write the slavery report, which was said to comprise the “distortions of a politically motivated student”.

Dr Bell-Romero has said that objections from fellows were “disproportionate”.

Gonville & Caius was founded in 1348 and is the fourth oldest college at the university. Famous alumni include Francis Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA; Alastair Campbell, the former Downing Street press secretary; and Jimmy Carr, the comedian.

The college’s final report on its links to slavery, published last month, concluded: “Caius alumni, fellows, and the college had significant connections to slavery and slaveholders and have profited off investments and benefactions connected to enslavement and coerced labour.”

It found that “the legacies of enslavement have not received sufficient attention at Caius”.

The college had “actively invested money in assets connected to the slave trade”, taken money “from fellows who had made similar investments in a slave-trading company, and elected a slaveholder to a junior fellowship”, it found.

“In an era when slavery was constantly contested, no less from enslaved Africans who fought the plantation system, the decision to take money from the slave trade and coerced labour was a choice to benefit from Britain’s wider slave empire.”

Report was ‘inaccurate and misleading’

Errors were said to include an individual being wrongly named as having slave links to the college, but their identity was confused with someone else.

One don said: “The assumption which lay behind the report was that it could be proven that the college kept silent on slavery, which it didn’t because it made donations to the Society of Abolition as the report showed on occasions.”

Prof Herbert said that the report in Varsity was “both inaccurate and misleading in certain key respects”, but declined to comment further.

The college did not respond to a request for comment.