Kent’s handling of misconduct complaint ‘made things worse’

University apologises after students say they have been treated with ‘no compassion’ after raising concerns about professor

二月 13, 2024
Source: iStock/Marco Paciello

A group of students at the University of Kent have accused the institution of failing to protect them despite it upholding several complaints they made against a professor accused of sexual misconduct.

Seven female students, who have asked not to be named, said they endured “constant worry” as a result of the academic’s actions over a prolonged period.

In May 2023, they presented Kent with a dossier of evidence that the professor had engaged in inappropriate behaviour including contacting students out of hours, sending them messages and unsolicited pictures, making misogynistic and sexually suggestive comments and staring at their bodies.

An investigation upheld three of five complaints and Kent said that “appropriate action has been taken to address the behaviours and prevent any reoccurrence”.

But the students have accused the university of a lack of transparency in its inquiry and said they felt “in the dark” over what measures have been taken to keep them safe. The response, they said, has been “more traumatic” than the original incidents.

“We’re in a worse position now than we were when we put the complaint in. For a lot of us, if we had to go back and bring the complaint again, I’m not sure that we would,” said one of those involved.

The student said she had been warned early on in her studies about the professor, including to always stand by the door in his office and not to wear certain items of clothing in his presence.

“We walked around as a pack for a long time,” she said. “If any of us were going to be alone with him, the first thing we would do is text the group chat. It was a constant background worry all the time. We didn’t realise how exhausting it was until we were finally removed from the situation.”

Kent suspended the professor while he was under investigation, but the student said they had been told on several occasions he was going to be allowed back on to campus, only for circumstances to change at the last minute.

His office has been moved to another building and he has been encouraged to work from home, but the student said this was the extent of the information they have been given, with Kent citing “policies and procedures” including data protection for not being able to say more.

One member of the group had been due to attend a recent conference until they found out he was due to be in attendance and, “terrified” at the prospect of seeing him, she decided not to go.

Another investigation into the handling of the first set of complaints was partially upheld and Kent offered payments of £300, which the student said “felt like it was their way of saying ‘shut up and go away’”.

“It was the policies and procedures that were in place, and the way they communicated with us; that was where the breakdown in the relationship came,” said the student. “There was no compassion, no care.”

The students have sent Kent a list of proposed remedies, asking for extensions to their studies, a written agreement that the professor will not contact or interact with them, and a formal apology.

In a statement the university said it fully acknowledged and was “truly sorry for the distress and upset caused to our students by both what they have been through and the subsequent investigatory process”.

“We take all allegations of staff misconduct very seriously and have taken steps throughout this investigation to ensure that the students’ well-being and ongoing safety, including safeguarding, remains an absolute priority,” a spokesperson said.

The university said that changes have already been made to policies and procedures and “we will continue to keep them [the students] updated on these changes and all other relevant developments as the case progresses”.

Anna Bull, director of research at the 1752 Group, which campaigns to end sexual misconduct in higher education, said that the Kent case was concerning.

“The Office for the Independent Adjudicator advises that higher education institutions offer student complainants ‘remedy’ for upheld complaints. However, my research has shown that institutions do not offer students the main remedy that they want in staff sexual misconduct cases: safety for themselves and others. Instead, staff sexual misconduct cases are centred on the disciplinary case against the reported staff member rather than on the academic and support needs of those targeted for misconduct,” said Dr Bull, senior lecturer in education and social justice at the University of York.

“While these two issues are to some degree interconnected, the situation at Kent shows that institutions urgently need to change the way they handle such cases and prioritise remedy for student complainants.”



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