Recent reports from Al Jazeera have revealed that prominent male academics at elite UK universities have sexually harassed various students and staff, and that this has continued unabated for decades, across different institutions and even continents. Sadly, this is a familiar story to many college students and staff. Many who read these stories may wonder if the academy will really have its #MeToo movement: is sexual harassment simply the price you pay for being a woman or LGBTQ + in the academy?
Together with colleagues from the research and campaign organization The 1752 Group, I have been researching and trying to bring about change in this area for several years. In 2018 we worked with the National Union of Students to survey students from across the UK and found that 15 per cent of the women surveyed had been touched by a staff member in a way that made them feel uncomfortable. We subsequently published a study on the experiences of women attempting to report sexual harassment by staff, and found the process to be exhausting, lengthy, sometimes traumatic, and ultimately ineffective.
To try to improve processes, last year we published a guide with the discrimination law firm McAllister Olivarius on how colleges should handle such reports. I am now conducting further research, together with Erin Shannon, Associate Researcher at the University of York, taking a closer look at the sexual harassment reporting process at universities.
Many institutions of higher education are currently in the process of updating policies and procedures and are trying to make changes to improve their handling of reports of sexual misconduct. There has been progress over the past five years, particularly in the provision of specialized support at universities for the large number of students who are victims of sexual violence and harassment.
However, most of the resource and focus has been directed at sexual misconduct among students. While this is clearly an urgent area to address, the staff as the perpetrator should be just as important, as the institution is directly responsible for the professional conduct of those it employs. For whatever reason, this problem has been surprisingly difficult for them to tackle.
A central problem universities face is that students, or even other staff, who are harassed by academics are often too afraid to formally report their experiences. This fear is not out of place: In my research, I have heard accounts of staff members retaliating by threatening the complainant, failing to teach a student after a complaint, spreading rumors that damage the complainant’s career, or filing counterclaims to have the complainant the institution investigates the complainant herself.
After all, these staff members have a lot of power over the student and often over other staff members. As a result, while many people may be aware of serial sexual harassment, often alongside other problematic behaviors, the institution claims that they cannot act without a formal report with named evidence. This leads to a standstill, with no action being taken.
This is not good enough. First, institutions must do much more to keep people safe during the reporting process. Second, in the absence of a formal report, there are proactive steps that institutions can take to find out more about what is happening and build trust with students and staff to help them report. For example, University College London has introduced “environmental investigations” that take place if the administration receives multiple anonymous reports from the same department.
These steps can make students or staff feel safe enough to report, or it could be the first step in building that trust. As my research shows, reporting is not a one-size-fits-all decision, but rather a series of long-term steps, so institutions need to help create an environment that supports reporting. Unfortunately, however, the broader conditions of higher education, including unmanageable workloads and high levels of precarious work, mean that trust in institutions is currently low.
As a result, it is even more important that institutions demonstrate that they will deal with grievances in a timely and responsive manner. This is challenging, and even when universities receive a formal report, we have evidence that they are often not taken seriously or that the staff member reported is protected at the expense of those who report. There are some signs that the tide is turning, although it seems rare for academic staff to lose their jobs, it does happen. But more often the staff member quits during an investigation and gets a job elsewhere, a phenomenon known colloquially as “passing the perpetrator.”
Many of these forms of covering up sexual harassment have their origin in the acceptance by the academy of imbalances and abuses of power. As sexualized violence professor Liz Kelly has described, these are “contexts where men’s status and authority, rather than inducing an ethic of caring, can be used by abusive men to intimidate and silence,” or in short, an “enabling context” for violence against women. Such contexts take the form of “institutionalized power and authority creating a sense of entitlement, to which there is limited external challenge.” The longer-term work that is needed, therefore, is to change the cultures of teaching and learning.
In the meantime, however, much can be done to improve institutional responses through a joint sector-wide approach. An urgent step is for the UK Counseling, Conciliation and Arbitration Service and the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, which oversee complaints from university staff and students respectively, to update their guidance to suit the purpose of addressing harassment. staff sexuality and other equality issues.
Many of the problems in dealing with reports of sexual harassment are similar for students who report racial harassment or other forms of discrimination, as independent scholar Sara Ahmed has described. For example, because universities prioritize data protection over broader legal obligations, including equality, health and safety, and human rights, many universities do not even inform complainants of the outcome of their complaint or of the sanctions imposed against the denounced party, despite the orientation updates last January from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Much more can also be done around prevention and data collection and reporting. In Ireland, a government-led national survey on sexual harassment in higher education, among staff and students, is about to be released, but in the UK we do not have comparable studies at national level. In addition to the lack of knowledge at the national level, at the institutional level, there is also a shortage of data. Most universities do not even publish figures on the number of reports they receive and the results of these reports. Making that data publicly available would be an easy win for improving transparency.
But these steps are too late for students and staff who have already lost careers, jobs, years of their lives and suffered the effects of being harassed and undermined while their institutions failed to protect them. The effects of sexual harassment and violence can be profound and long-lasting. Universities and other institutions in society are only beginning to realize the magnitude of this challenge. There are no quick fixes for a long-standing and complex problem like this, but things can be improved. Let’s get to work.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.