Sexual harassment in HE

Are we facing an epidemic of allegations of sexual harassment being made by students against staff in universities?

By Richard Peachey, Dispute Resolution Consultant, CMP Resolutions

How would the university sector deal with the kind of trend being faced by the Football Association, the opening up historic cases of sexual harassment?

The HE campus environment poses particular risks and complexities. Such large numbers of young adults, many living away from home for the first time and looking to explore their new freedom, students form different kinds of relationships with academic staff – older, confident, admired. 

An investigation by The Guardian included the suggestion there may be an “epidemic” of allegations of sexual harassment being made by students against staff in universities. A Freedom of Information request showed there had been 169 allegations over the past five years. This was described by a legal commentator as being the “tip of the iceberg” due to the number of unreported cases and students unwilling to expose themselves to criticism and spoil the relationship with their university.

Another finding of the investigation is perhaps more disturbing – the way in which institutions have used internal, informal investigations, headed up by an academic, to deal with allegations. No matter how thoughtful, reflective and well-intentioned the process, the resulting use of settlements and non-disclosure agreements looks more convenient for reputations than interested in truth and a level of justice.

Students have to be able to trust in the professionalism and integrity of their institution

The whole sector needs to get on top of the issue as quickly as possible, with agreement across the sector on a clear, consistent policy on responding to sexual harassment cases – that there’s never a justification for secrecy or fudge. Students have to be able to trust in the professionalism and integrity of their institution. 

There are basic principles that need to underpin the response and demonstrate a house that’s in order:

  • investigations need to be formal in terms of how they are organised, carried out and reported on;
  • investigations into allegations need to be proportionate with the alleged offence (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 ‘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). This only reinforces the natural power relationship, the strength of the institution and individual staff over students;
  • 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 should not be run by an academic, even if they have no association with the member of staff involved – there are always going to be loyalties and sympathies that cloud decision-making;
  • rather than just assuming a personal tutor should be involved, extra care is needed when considering whether an investigation should be handled by a man or woman to encourage openness;
  • they need to be undertaken as quickly as possible in the interests of both sides. 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, even participate);
  • training in fair decision-making can be needed among panel members. 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;
  • If an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment is found guilty, it’s important an institution can ensure that sanctions are consistent – if one staff member is only given a rap over the knuckles while another at a different university is dismissed from their post for a similar offence then it only weakens the sector’s position and creates confusion.

Of course it’s an issue of university and campus culture, and processes won’t untangle the potential for unwise and irresponsible behaviours. And no-one would want to impose a Puritanical regime that made lives and experiences less human. But universities should also think in terms of their wider, pastoral responsibility to young people, that they are not just delivering learning but an experience and an environment where people grow as individuals, able to take responsibility, make decent decisions about themselves and others, learn about the importance of equality and respect for diversity. 

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