What’s the best way for universities to deal with sexual misconduct allegations?

Reports of rape and sexual assault are on the rise and institutions must handle them with sensitivity and professionalism, says Richard Peachey

A Channel 4 investigation has claimed reports of rape and sexual assault cases in universities have spiked by 82% in the past year. Numbers are said to have risen from 65 reports in 2014 to 626 in 2018, with more than 1,600 in total over the period.

Universities agree that the dramatic rise in figures are the result of a number of factors that have encouraged reporting: the introduction of anonymous methods for making reports, backed up by awareness-raising campaigns. They also point to the fact that the numbers quoted by Channel 4 include the reporting of historic cases. And, of course, the context is different. The #MeToo age has made everyone more sensitive to, and willing to talk about, inappropriate behaviour.

While the details of each case are concerning, the public’s perception of the sector matters too, something affected and undermined over time by all these kinds of special news investigations, social media conversations, gossip and rumour.

When it comes to inappropriate behaviours, from bullying to sexual violence, there’s no doubt HE faces a unique combination of risks, working as it does each year with cohorts of young people, many away from home for the first time and living independently in hothouse communities of relationships. There’s also the dynamic with academics and other staff – figures of experience and status with a role in pastoral care.

As the film industry has demonstrated, it only takes one high-profile case (in the shape of Harvey Weinstein) for a storm of interest and attitudes to a whole industry, its culture and way of working to be transformed – and for the floodgates of claims, historic or otherwise, to be opened up.

“Extra care is needed when considering who should handle an investigation, to encourage openness”

Universities all need to be looking again at their systems and processes to ensure they bear up to any level of scrutiny. That doesn’t only mean the process for reporting in the first place – although obviously critical – but how the fall-out of the complaint is dealt with.

There are basic principles that need to underpin the response and demonstrate a house that’s in order. For example, investigations into inappropriate behaviours need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on. They need to be proportionate with the alleged behaviour (so the more serious the allegation, the more evidence should be gathered, more witnesses called and paths of inquiry followed to their logical end). There should never be an onus on the reporter, often referred to as the ‘victim’, to be accommodating in terms of reaching a settlement (for the sake of the reputation of their institution or the respect of the individuals involved). Rightly, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) for the wrong reasons is in the government’s sights for legislative change.

Any allegation needs to be treated seriously in the first instance – there should, for example, be an onus on the respondent to engage in the process, and not have the option to refuse any participation. Investigations into staff misconduct shouldn’t be run by an academic, even if they have no association with the member of staff involved – there are always going to be biases, loyalties and sympathies that could cloud decision-making. Rather than just assuming a student’s personal tutor should be involved, extra care is also needed when considering who should handle an investigation, to encourage openness.


From the archive: Beds University launch e-resource to tackle sexual assault – new resource for educators will help schools self-assess their response to poor sexual behaviour


Investigations and any resulting disciplinary action needs to be carried out as quickly as possible in the interests of all those involved. Investigations run with internal resources tend to be slow, relying on the availability of senior academic staff, which can prolong anxieties and act as a barrier to victims (not wanting to extend the experience or after a time, to even participate). Having access to trained and dedicated investigation support, and training in fair decision-making among panel members is essential. A panel may well include HR and a student representative, but the assumed power will usually lie with the academic when there needs to be equality in terms of how views and perspectives are treated.

Introducing good processes builds the all-important confidence and trust among all stakeholders involved with an institution, a certainty that they will be listened to and there will be a constructive outcome. A strong culture is built around a knowledge of what’s expected from everyone in the community, and what happens when behaviour isn’t in line with those shared values. Issues are raised early and dealt with early, before tensions increase and positions become entrenched, and there’s long-lasting reputational damage.

Richard Peachey is a consultant at conflict management and investigations company CMP, cmpsolutions.com