Let’s discuss the way we live now

Good communication is vital when dealing with allegations of harassment, says Luke Brunning

April 3, 2014

Source: Paul Bateman

Last month, the chair of the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Philosophy stunned many former student colleagues of suicide victim Charlotte Coursier by suggesting that the novels of Anthony Trollope may comfort those upset by the continued presence in their community of an academic that she claimed had harassed her.

Philosophical appeals to literature are usually heartening, but real life is not an epistemology seminar. If this remark is representative of academic approaches to student welfare, the sector has a serious problem.

Ms Coursier, a graduate student in philosophy, committed suicide in June last year. The previous month, she had informed the faculty and the police that she was suffering harassment. The alleged perpetrator, Jeffrey Ketland, was a lecturer and fellow of Pembroke College. The coroner’s inquest into her death last month heard that he received a harassment warning from the police, but he remained employed. It was not until last week that Dr Ketland revealed on a philosophy blog that he has been sacked.

I have not read Trollope. Apparently he depicts the dangers of deceptive appearances; the plight of ignored innocents. Doubtless our faculty chair was right that imaginative exertion can help people understand the importance of due process. Yet, in my experience within the philosophy community, both in person and online, most engagement with harassment in higher education deploys the imagination selectively. Students are encouraged to inhabit the perspective of the alleged harasser, and overlook the viewpoint of victims or those students who feel unsafe. This imaginative imbalance harms students. We need richer reflection about serious responses to harassment.

Oxford students articulated their outrage at the university’s response to Ms Coursier’s allegations in an open letter. Outrage seems lifeless without context, so imagine learning that members of your own academic faculty were not informed of the alleged harassment and suicide of one of their students. Then picture sitting in meetings listening to senior academics emphasising the “epistemic problem” of harassment, but ignoring the psychological toll that the gradual emergence of the details of the case has taken on their students.

You expect, given your institution’s duty to protect the vulnerable, to have all relevant information passed on to you. Instead, you are confronted by silence. Your emails are ignored and your freedom of information requests rebuffed. At the very least, you expect a statement from your faculty, but none is forthcoming. So you wait. Eventually you read about the student’s alleged harassment in a newspaper. Still nothing. Finally, after national media coverage, a cryptic email invites you to a meeting. It is at 8pm so you are thankful you live close to the faculty building and don’t have children. When you arrive, there is much talk of justice, and a smattering of Latin phrases. You’re told there will be “no discussion of specific cases”. To understand why, a professor advises you to read Trollope.

Things could be worse. Imagine having arrived at the university last October. Other universities offered you funding but you rejected it to work at Oxford with the leading expert in your field. Months later, quite by chance, you indignantly learn of allegations that that expert harassed a student. Despite that, you then learn that he has still had “institutionally mediated contact” with students.

Oxford says it has been as communicative as the law permits it to be and many think the university’s silence illustrates its diligent adherence to harassment policy. Let’s presuppose the university did adhere to its procedures in responding to Ms Coursier’s allegations. (Philosophers enjoy thought experiments.) The conclusion must then be that these procedures are inadequately timely and transparent.

Yet some faculty members conceded that the faculty could have done more to communicate with current and prospective students. This highlights the importance of taking the widest range of supportive actions consistent with existing university policies. Only sensitive and accommodating action by departments can prevent harm to student communities in such situations.

University regulations define harassment as conduct with “the purpose or effect” of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment”. The caustic irony of these past months is that if the University of Oxford were itself a person, it would be open to accusations of harassment. It created an intimidating and offensive environment by failing to respond adequately to allegations. It failed to do everything possible to support and reassure vulnerable students in a manner consistent with the law, or to explain to them why this was not possible.

Harassment is deplorable because it is traumatic and disruptive. Students have to battle both of these effects when a university allows a person who has been accused of harassment to continue to have contact with students while official procedures drag on and on. No amount of Trollope will remedy that.

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Reader's comments (2)

The suicide of Charlotte Coursier and the subsequent investigation into allegations of harassment have indeed raised complex and very troubling issues for the University 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 Brunning raises which have helped to create such a difficult situation, and how these might be remedied, rather than point the finger at individuals. This is especially the case given that the great complexity of the institution means that the Philosophy Faculty has very limited powers to act. For instance, 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 rules and regulations of the University, who themselves have been acting under legal advice; (although questions have been raised by some about whether that legal advice might be geared more to protecting the institution than the welfare of the students). Much of the difficulty with communication has stemmed from the nature of the current harassment policies, under which harassment cases are dealt with under conditions of confidentiality. There of course reasons for this, including the protection of those accused of harassment, who must be treated as innocent until proven otherwise. However, there are therefore certain difficulties which arise; for example, it’s impossible for anyone to know if any particular case has been handled fairly and efficiently, or not. This then leaves room for speculation and uncertainty. There are also serious difficulties about how best to protect the welfare of those alleging harassment, as well as those accused there are serious difficulties about how to protect the welfare of the wider student body. 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 completely unrealistic in a complex and contested case. For these and many other reasons, there’s reason to think the harassment policies are far from perfect, and indeed they are under review. One would hope that this review does not drag on too much longer. However, given the current 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 one hundred and fifty faculty members – did not know. The entire faculty were informed of Charlotte’s death last June, but of course, nobody could be ‘informed’ of her suicide until the inquest established this as the cause in late February. And Brunning does not elaborate the nature of the FOI requests that were rebuffed, but there are clear rules about what can and cannot be subjected to an FOI request. If his requests were turned down for illegitimate reasons, he has grounds for complaint, and should pursue this. One dispute seems to be about the very question of whether harassment allegations, and the evidence provided to them, should or should not be in the public domain. At the meeting to which Brunning refers, which I also attended, the chair of the Philosophy Faculty was faced with the horrible task of being sandwiched in between what the central administration, and their lawyers, told him could not be discussed, and the genuine and entirely understandable anxieties, frustrations, and grief, of the students. He did indeed refer to Trollope, but in the context of having to explain that he was unable, for legal reasons, and on the instructions of the central administration, to give any information at all about the harassment allegations. He tried to explain the general reasons behind this, and this is when, to the best of my memory, he referred to Trollope. In many other contexts, this might indeed sound quite trite, but in the context of a Philosophy Faculty, may be more appropriate. If we are talking about thought experiments, it is always extremely easy to imagine that in a particular difficult situation, one would have performed better oneself. This may or may not be true. The important issues here now are what changes should be made to policy and practice in the future to avoid the grave difficulties that have indeed arisen. The student body, and the Faculty, has indeed been deeply troubled by this tragic case. Paula Boddington, Lecturer in Philosophy, Hertford College, Oxford
The above comment appears to misunderstand the thrust of the article, which, as I understand it, is concerned to stress that more needs to be done *alongside* any reform to harassment policy. It seems undeniably true that various reforms need to be considered. But this does not invalidate attempts to raise concerns about the actions of institutions, even when they are constrained by poor reforms. As I read the piece, it appears to suggest that those in charge of the faculty themselves conceded they could have done better to communicate with students in several respects. Thus it seems reasonable to bring those shortcomings to light in order to try and improve the future culture for female graduate students, both in Oxford and elsewhere. One thing I have observed, in following this case since last June, is that various attempts to raise broad issues about the climate for graduate students have been silenced. We have been urged to focus on the limitations of harassment policy, on the stringencies of due process, on need for reasonable calm, and so on. The article makes the point that these attempts to re-direct our attention in various ways serve to overlook, or downplay, significant forms of systematic harm which affect student life. This point seems accurate to me, and is consistent with my own experience of these issues over these past months. I raise this point because it seems that the above comment is yet another attempt to re-direct attention towards certain – albeit important – matters of formal policy. This is at cross purposes with the main argument of the article, which is trying to show us that there are other things to worry about. Even well-intentioned efforts by institutional leaders, under great constraints, can be the justified subject of critical opinion. To suggest otherwise is to acquiesce to power simply because it is wielded with a friendly face. Moreover, the above comment makes a distinction – as philosophers are wont to do – between what is trite in a philosophical context, and what people in ‘many other contexts’ might find to be appropriate. Yet as I see it, this philosophical exceptionalism is part of the problem that this article addresses. Many philosophers, especially younger graduates who have yet to be acculturated (negatively, in my opinion) to the ways of the (patriarchal) profession, will not share the same sensibility. These people might retain a sense of the ordinary horror and frustration raised by this case and the way it has been handled. They may also feel that recourse to the familiar tropes of the profession is not the way to best facilitate change and support a friendly environment. (For perhaps those tropes contribute to the problems being called-out here in the first place). We should not rest content with our received conceptions of what is normal in academic philosophy. Finally, I find it interesting that Paula Boddington is defensive of the faculty’s actions, and chooses to criticise and silence a graduate student’s attempt to raise issues that need to be discussed both in Oxford and throughout Higher Education. I know many graduate students who are reluctant to speak about their negative experiences within this institution. Perhaps this is why.

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