Addressing staff/faculty-student sexual misconduct in higher education, part two: response

Let’s stop putting all the responsibility and risk on survivors to report this issue and move towards proactive institutional responses, writes Anna Bull

Anna Bull's avatar
University of York
7 Mar 2024
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Addressing sexual misconduct in higher education is a multifaceted challenge that calls for the involvement of various aspects of the institution and the confrontation of deeply ingrained cultures. Nevertheless, taking certain measures can reduce the likelihood of staff/faculty sexual harassment and mitigate harm.

In this article, as co-director of The 1752 Group, an advocacy and research group dedicated to eradicating sexual misconduct in higher education, I explain how to respond to reports and the steps that institutions should take when they receive information about sexual harassment outside a formal report. If you haven’t read it already, part one of this series outlines how higher education institutions can prevent faculty/staff sexual harassment.

Responding to reports of faculty/staff sexual harassment

Acts of sexual harassment and violence take away choice and control from those targeted. Wherever possible, we must empower reporting parties by giving them choice and control over the actions taken. Trained, expert staff should provide support regardless of whether reporting parties choose a formal route.

It is important to implement precautionary measures to ensure that reporting parties are safe and that their work/studies are not interrupted because of their report. These might include agreements relating to authorship rights on planned publications, as well as ensuring that postgraduate researchers have access to the data and equipment they need to carry out their research. In some cases, suspension from work may be required, if (after a risk assessment) there is deemed to be a risk to the reporting party/ies or other staff/students.

Risk assessments should ascertain risk to the reporting party/ies, the wider student/staff body and the responding party, and they should have input from a specialist in gender-based violence. This follows recommendations from the Westmarland review, which was commissioned by the University of Sussex in 2016 to review the university’s response to a domestic violence case that had been widely reported and criticised.

If the sexual harassment constitutes a criminal offence, the institution should support the student if they choose to report it to the police. If they do not want to tell the police, they do not have to. Regardless of whether the police are involved, the institution can still investigate under its own internal policies, although the police may require the institution to pause its investigation while they carry out theirs.

Don’t wait for formal reports to start an investigation

Where there are multiple informal or third-party reports (whether through anonymous reporting platforms or via other means) an employer may need to proactively open an investigation following The 1752 Group’s guidance. Where wider cultural issues exist, there needs to be an environmental investigation into the culture of a department (for example, see Howlett Brown’s investigation into the Bartlett School of Architecture). The University of Cambridge’s Dignity at Work policy now includes provision for “university-instigated investigations”. This example of good practice should be widely adopted.

Mandatory reporting of disclosures of sexual harassment or violence is not recommended as this may deter students from disclosing. Instead, institutions need to carefully balance the safety and wishes of reporting parties with their duty of care to other students and staff.

Follow specialised guidance on handling formal reports

For formal handling of reports, institutions should follow The 1752 Group and McAllister Olivarius’ guidance and disciplinary processes. The law firm Eversheds Sutherland has published similar guidance. Reporting parties should have equal access to information as the responding party during the disciplinary process. Institutions should share information on the outcome of the disciplinary process, including sanctions and other actions taken as a result of the process, with reporting parties wherever possible.

Investigators and disciplinary panel members must be trained, by external experts unless internal expertise is available, in recognising rape myths and assessing evidence in sexual misconduct cases. Rape myths are beliefs that serve to deny, downplay or justify sexual violence, such as “false allegations are common” and “any delay in reporting sexual violence or harassment is suspicious”. These false beliefs can cause investigators and disciplinary panel members to assess evidence inaccurately.

Most students report staff/faculty sexual misconduct to protect others, and the outcome that they are seeking is usually that others are not targeted for the same behaviour. As such, actions following a reporting process need to prioritise ensuring the ongoing safety of the wider community.

Support all students and staff at the end of a process

Students may need academic and other individual remedies such as funded extensions to PhD deadlines and academic mentoring to help them regain confidence, mitigate lost time and rebuild professional networks or longer-term specialist counselling.

Wider, community-based remedies to rebuild communities and ensure that other staff and students are safe are often overlooked but these are equally important. These could include:

  • Survivors feeding into revisions of institutional policies or procedures
  • Public events to raise awareness of sexual harassment and gender-based violence
  • Training or facilitated discussions to rebuild a departmental culture
  • Disciplinary culture and transparency around actions by the institution to address any issues revealed by the process.

The climate has changed in this area over the past few years. A recent independent investigation by Gemma White into Trinity Hall in Cambridge concluded that higher education institutions must take some form of action on receiving disclosures, rather than wait for someone willing to pursue a formal complaint. She observed that “many (if not all) higher education institutions have much work to do in this field”. Let’s stop putting all the responsibility and risk on survivors to report this issue and move towards proactive institutional responses.

Note: these recommendations draw on UK-based guidance, but the principles are applicable in many other jurisdictions.

Anna Bull is a senior lecturer at the University of York and co-director of The 1752 Group.

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