Warn­ing over in­ef­fec­tive sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaints pro­cesses at uni­ver­si­ties

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Chris.haver­gal@timeshigh­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

Cam­paign­ers have warned that univer­sity staff ac­cused of sex­ual mis­con­duct are be­ing left free to tar­get other vic­tims be­cause of in­ef­fec­tive com­plaints pro­cesses that can drag on for sev­eral years and are nearly im­pos­si­ble to chal­lenge.

A re­port by the 1752 Group, which is work­ing to ad­dress staff sex­ual mis­con­duct in UK higher ed­u­ca­tion, says that some stu­dents and early ca­reer aca­demics were spend­ing as long as seven or eight years deal­ing with the al­leged of­fence it­self, dis­ci­plinary pro­ceed­ings, and po­ten­tial re­tal­i­a­tion from the staff mem­ber in­volved.

The re­port, pub­lished on 26 Septem­ber, also high­lights the huge amount of labour in­volved in mak­ing a com­plaint: one al­leged vic­tim had to write a 10,000-word com­plaint, a sim­i­lar length to an un­der­grad­u­ate dis­ser­ta­tion, while an­other de­scribed hav­ing to col­late 200 pages of ev­i­dence to ac­com­pany their 12-page re­port.

The 1752 Group rec­om­mends that uni­ver­si­ties should en­sure that their full com­plaints process should not take longer than a year. At the mo­ment, stu­dents are un­able to go to the English and Welsh sec­tor om­buds­man, the Of­fice of the In­de­pen­dent Ad­ju­di­ca­tor, un­til they have ex­hausted their in­ter­nal com­plaints pro­ce­dure, but the group’s re­port says this was an “al­most in­sur­mount­able bar­rier” be­cause in­ter­nal sys­tems could in­clude up to four rounds of com­plaints pro­ce­dures, each tak­ing up to a year.

The 1752 Group says that stu­dents should be able to take their case to the OIA af­ter a year of en­gag­ing with the in­ter­nal com­plaints sys­tem, re­gard­less of whether or not they have re­ceived an “end-of-process” let­ter.

The re­port, Si­lenc­ing Stu­dents: In­sti­tu­tional Re­sponses to Staff Sex­ual Mis­con­duct in UK Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, was based on in­ter­views with 16 stu­dents and early ca­reer aca­demics in 14 in­sti­tu­tions. Strik­ingly, all but four of the staff mem­bers ac­cused of mis­con­duct were re­ported to have tar­geted at least one other woman, and in some cases mul­ti­ple women.

In only one of the cases con­sid­ered had the staff mem­ber al­legedly in­volved lost his job; two had re­signed and had found posts abroad, and 12 were still in post.

The re­port high­lights lack of clar­ity within in­sti­tu­tions about which be­hav­iours could be re­ported, and wide­spread dif­fi­culty in find­ing the right per­son who could act on their al­le­ga­tions. Al­most all the in­ter­vie­wees said that they were blocked or dis­suaded from re­port­ing mis­con­duct, for ex­am­ple by a three-month time limit on re­ports or by poli­cies that ask vic­tims to ap­proach the al­leged per­pe­tra­tor be­fore mak­ing a for­mal com­plaint.

In­ter­vie­wees high­lighted the se­vere ef­fect of the com­plaints process on their men­tal and phys­i­cal health, with con­cerns some­times fo­cus­ing on in­ter­nal tri­bunal hear­ings which were held in the pres­ence of the staff mem­ber they had ac­cused. In some cases staff mem­bers used this op­por­tu­nity to “ag­gres­sively at­tack and ‘gaslight’” their ac­cuser, the re­port says.

And there were also wide­spread

con­cerns about re­tal­i­a­tion from staff mem­bers who were ac­cused, in­clud­ing spread­ing of ma­li­cious ru­mours about the al­leged vic­tim, and aca­demic reprisals, such as loss of teach­ing or au­thor­ship rights.

The re­port rec­om­mends that higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions should ur­gently im­prove their in­ter­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions pro­cesses, and that the English reg­u­la­tor, the Of­fice for Stu­dents, is given the power to sanc­tion uni­ver­si­ties that do not ad­e­quately deal with com­plaints.

Co-au­thor Anna Bull, se­nior lec­ture in so­ci­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Portsmouth, said: “While there is good­will from some in­di­vid­ual mem­bers of univer­sity staff, over­all there is a very se­ri­ous lack of in­sti­tu­tional pro­cesses and pre­pared­ness to re­ceive com­plaints or re­ports around sex­ual ha­rass­ment by staff.

“The fact in­sti­tu­tions are not pre­pared to deal with re­ports and don’t know what to do means, in ef­fect, they are pro­tect­ing se­rial per­pe­tra­tors of sex­ual ha­rass­ment and vi­o­lence on their staff.”

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