How the university handled the dispute

September 12, 1997

The language of rights can be invoked to justify oppressive, coercive, menacing, exploitative and potentially violent relations. It was certainly invoked by the student who, out of a sense of multiple grievance, was stalking me. When I or university officials complained of her behaviour she would reply that she had a right like any other citizen to walk on public land, to use the highways, to look into any window and more generally to do as she pleased just so long as she broke no law. Her case was that I might not like what she was doing - indeed I was meant not to - but right was on her side.

I experienced her behaviour as totally violative and her justification for it reminded me of my distrust for how the language of rights was used in the 1980s by the then establishment as an attack on social institutions: the rights of individual trade unionists against their unions, ratepayers against their councils, council tenants to buy their houses, citizens to own a share in privatised industries, management to manage, unborn children to be born regardless of their mothers' wishes, etc. In this case, I appealed to the social institution - the university where I taught - to put a stop to this student's behaviour. The university was sympathetic but slow to take action. I emphasised the duty of care which the university had to me as an employee, the responsibility it had to enforce its rules, and its more general role as a public body not to allow severe and persistent harassment of one of its members by another.

The student-stalker objected to any intervention by the university as an abuse of its powers. What she did in her own time and outside the grounds of the university was not the university's business, her dispute with me was a private matter beyond the university's jurisdiction, and in any case there was no university rule being violated. For me it was very important that the university make a stand and make it clear that harassment (sexual, racial or other) would not be tolerated. Eventually the university initiated disciplinary proceedings against the student on grounds of persistent harassment. The case was put, a committee formed among staff and students, witnesses called, the accused represented, and summings up offered. The student was "convicted" and suspended for a year with possible reinstatement if she mended her ways.

This was not the end of the matter. The student appealed the decision to the Visitor - the Queen's representative, the court of last appeal at the university who happened to be the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay. She presented herself as the abused victim of a powerful institution and focused her case around what she saw as four key irregularities: the admission of prejudicial evidence concerning theft and vandalism, the relation between her actual offence and the university-devised category of offences under which it was heard, the alleged bias of the committee in favour of academics, and the limits of the university's jurisdiction over acts which take place off-campus.

To my surprise, the Lord Chancellor upheld her appeal. He said that the admission of evidence of criminal offences with which the student was not charged was unfair, that the proceedings should have been tape-recorded so that there should be no argument over the record, that the university should not deal with issues that are matters for the courts and that this was essentially a private dispute. He declared the whole proceedings to be null and void, granted the student a right of relief (which meant reinstatement) but said that this did not prejudice the right of the university to take further disciplinary action.

I was dismayed by this notion of "private dispute" which I saw as a defence of public irresponsibility. I was also dismayed at the prospect of the continuation of stalking at work as well as at home. There was some conflict of interest between myself, who wanted an immediate return to disciplinary action once the student was reinstated and continued to stalk, and the university which was licking its wounds and cautious about taking any further action. But the issue was overtaken by events in the High Court where I won an injunction to stop the student "harassing or molesting" me and she resigned from the university.

The case raises afresh the question of the rights of individuals in relation to the responsibilities of public institutions. For the university not to act in a case of serious harassment would have been an abuse of its powers, but how it acts then becomes crucial (in my case as much for the complainant as for the defendant): the fairness of the procedures used, the definition of the rules, the transparency of records, the composition of committees, the relation of penalties to offences, and not least the question of how public its disciplinary proceedings should be. This is a matter for the university community as a whole, including officers, unions, academic staff and students, to address if private right, public power and social responsibility are to be brought into any kind of relation to one another.

Robert Fine

Being Stalked is published this month, Chatto and Windus Pounds 9.99.

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