Leading Article: Clever fools at King's College

Click to follow
IT IS easy to understand why King's College, London, was content to keep an allegation of student date-rape out of the public eye. It had its reputation to consider. Founded in 1828 by moral die- hards such as the Duke of Wellington and the Church of England hierarchy, it was intended to rival University College, the godless institution across town.

Sex and drinking binges were not on the curriculum when Bishop Blomfield's opening sermon heralded the college's happy marriage of religious instruction and intellectual culture. His more secular successors have shown a Victorian hypocrisy in seeking to sweep the seamier side of student life under the carpet.

Perhaps the college authorities thought themselves compassionate or even clever in dealing internally with rape allegations against Austen Donnellan. The accused history student was expected to plead guilty to a lesser charge and quietly lose his university place. Ms X would not pursue her case and that would be the end of that.

But this outrageous scheme failed, thanks to Mr Donnellan's courage in insisting that the police should take over. Now that he has been acquitted, the college looks stupid and cowardly: prepared to ignore due process, natural justice and simple common sense. Anyone in the public relations world could have predicted that hiding problems would be counter-productive. But it is often the brightest who make the biggest fools of themselves. The fellows of King's College, alma mater to Joseph Lister and Thomas Hardy, have proved no exception to that rule.

Other universities should learn from their folly. Since the age of majority fell from 21 to 18, college authorities have ceased to consider themselves in loco parentis. Who sleeps with whom is not their concern. But disciplinary committees still occasionally venture well beyond their competence. This is not the first time a college committee has attempted to try a rape case instead of passing it on to a judge and jury.

Punishing plagiarists and cheats is obviously natural territory for proctors, deans and registrars - provided those found guilty can challenge the decision in the courts. University authorities may even tackle student bar-wreckers and those addicted to emptying fire extinguishers. But when criminality is involved dons should defer to the experts.

The moral of this painful case is that university authorities should always put justice for students first. To do otherwise is to risk jeopardising the very reputation they are so keen to preserve.