Imperfect policies

April 17, 2014

The suicide of Charlotte Coursier and the subsequent investigation into allegations of harassment have raised complex and very troubling issues for the University of Oxford in general and for the philosophy faculty, and especially its graduate students, in particular. But for this very reason, it is perhaps more effective to focus on the procedural issues Luke Brunning raises (“Discussing what matters”, Opinion, 3 April), which have helped to create such a difficult situation, and how these might be remedied, rather than to point the finger at individuals.

It is simply not possible for a faculty to act to suspend a member of staff from duties pending the outcome of an investigation. A faculty simply does not have the power to do so. Furthermore, the faculty is subject to the rules and regulations of the university, which itself has been acting under legal advice. Much of the difficulty with communication has stemmed from the nature of the harassment policies, under which harassment cases are dealt with under conditions of confidentiality. There are of course reasons for this, including the protection of those accused of harassment. However, there are therefore certain difficulties that arise; for example, it is impossible for anyone to know whether a case has been handled fairly and efficiently.

There also seems to be inherent tensions in the current regulations, which suggest that cases should be dealt with in about six weeks, when this seems unrealistic in a complex case.

For these and other reasons, there is cause to think the harassment policies are far from perfect, and indeed they are under review.

However, given the conditions of confidentiality, certain things result. Brunning states that some members of the faculty did not know of the harassment allegations, but given the confidentiality conditions, of course many members of this vast faculty – with more than 150 members – did not know. The faculty were informed of Ms Coursier’s death last June, but nobody could be “informed” of her suicide until the inquest established this as the cause in late February.

At the meeting to which Brunning refers, the chair of the philosophy faculty was sandwiched between what the central administration, and its lawyers, told him could not be discussed, and the frustrations and grief of the students. He did indeed refer to Trollope, but in the context of having to explain that he was unable to give any information about the harassment allegations. In many other contexts, this might indeed sound trite, but in the context of a philosophy faculty, it may be more appropriate.

The important issues now are what changes should be made to policy and practice to avoid the grave difficulties that have arisen.

Paula Boddington
Lecturer in philosophy
Hertford College, Oxford

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