These are challenging times for UK universities. The impact of Brexit, the looming teaching excellence framework (TEF), the next research excellence framework (REF) appearing over the horizon and a far-reaching Higher Education and Research Bill all mean we have a lot on our plates at present.
Such a busy agenda, involving many uncertainties and circumstances beyond our control, can often lead us to neglect or ignore what is right under our noses. But issues close to home can have just as much impact on our institutions and culture as those driven by external factors.
One such issue is the ongoing debate about how to tackle sexism, discrimination and harassment on our campuses. A recent study by Universities UK has uncovered many worrying accounts of this kind of behaviour across the sector.
Here at Imperial College, our own 2015 Varsity rugby match was overshadowed by unacceptable behaviour towards female athletes.
Although some of the more serious allegations reported in the press were not upheld by the College’s investigation, we are certainly not without blame and I was personally saddened that the tremendous achievements of our teams on the pitch were spoilt by such appalling attitudes and behaviour off it.
As a predominantly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) institution with a history stretching back into the 19th century, Imperial College has tended to be very hierarchical and male-dominated. Despite much recent progress – including the recent renewal of our Silver Athena SWAN institutional award – there are still attitudes and behaviours towards women that have no place in a 21st-century university that aspires to be among the best in the world.
While press reports show that sadly the kind of incident that took place at the Varsity match is not unique to Imperial, it cannot be an excuse for us turning a blind eye.
That is why we decided last year to take strong action and appointed Dr Alison Phipps – an expert in gender studies from the University of Sussex – to lead a review into the College’s whole culture and in particular its impact on gender equality.
It was the first time any UK higher education institution had commissioned such an independent and comprehensive study. We deliberately chose external academic researchers who would challenge us, bring uncomfortable truths to light and provide us with a critical eye.
Over the course of the past year, Dr Phipps and her colleagues have spoken to hundreds of staff and students through interviews, focus groups and surveys. They have used the Action Inquiry method to explore themes that emerged from their research with representatives from all levels of the College community.
The resulting report, published by the College last week, gives a frank account of what we are getting right but also where we are falling short of the standards we set ourselves.
It acknowledges the policies, initiatives and support we have in place and the benefits that they bring. It notes that many staff and students consider Imperial to be a friendly, open and supportive place to work, a conclusion supported by our own staff surveys.
But much of the report also makes for difficult reading. There are accounts of staff and students feeling silenced, undermined and afraid to come forward to report discrimination, harassment and other forms of completely unacceptable behaviour.
In our scientific research work we often tolerate deviations from normal patterns, as they can often signal a new discovery. But in the case of unacceptable individual or collective behaviour there is no room for variation or equivocation: we have to adopt a zero-tolerance approach.
The incidents and accounts revealed by Dr Phipps’s research are as unacceptable as the behaviour we saw at last year’s Varsity match. They strike at the heart of what we are as an institution, and are completely at odds with our values of collegiality, mutual respect and openness.
So we are taking the report and its recommendations very seriously. Over the coming months, we will be working with staff and students to develop our response and our commitment to making changes at institutional, department and individual level. We will be making clear this is led from the top – by me as provost and by our president, Alice Gast.
We all have plenty of other things on our "to do" lists. But we also know that ultimately the culture and values of our own institution, reflected in the attitudes and behaviour of our community, are as important a part of "excellence" as successes in the laboratory, examination room or on the sports field.
James Stirling is provost of Imperial College London