Ask the panel

January 5, 2007

Worried about your employment, maternity, pension rights? Send your questions to The Times Higher advice panel.

I am a 42-year-old balding lecturer with a beer gut and glasses. Strangely, a young female student has become fixated with me. She e-mails me constantly and has started ringing my home. She swings between saying that she hates me and that she loves me. I have done nothing to encourage this and am baffled. I am happily married with two children and am increasingly alarmed. When I mentioned the situation to my head of department she obviously found it very funny and even implied that I might have flirted with the student. I do not like to bring the matter up again. What should I do?

* Our panellist from the University and College Union says: "I think you are right to feel alarmed and you must certainly take further action to protect yourself. From your description of what is happening, the student's behaviour is clearly unpredictable and potentially dangerous.

Presumably, the constant e-mails and the calls to your home are also a cause of considerable annoyance to you and your family, and could even be said to constitute harassment.

"I would advise that you do two things. First, if you have not already done so, make it absolutely clear to the student, in writing, that you want her to stop e-mailing you and phoning you. Second, make it clear to the university authorities that you are concerned about the student's behaviour and that there is absolutely no way that you are complicit in it.

"I think it is highly irresponsible of your head of department to have laughed off your concerns. If the young woman is in the state of swinging between love and hate, it is only a small step for her to turn against you completely and accuse you of sexual assault.

"I would put your concerns in writing to your head of department and copy them to others who will take the issue seriously. It might be helpful to explain your concerns to your union representative, and to copy him or her in, but also copy it to someone who has the power to make your head of department deal with the issue properly.

"Presumably, you have evidence of the e-mails. It would also be advisable to keep a log of any phone calls or, if you have already done so, to present that as evidence.

"I sense that you are embarrassed to pursue this matter because you see yourself as an unlikely object of adolescent passion and you expect your colleagues to react as inappropriately as your head of department did.

"Hopefully, not everyone will be so stupid. A little embarrassment now is worth it to avert the possibility of serious accusations, in which it will be your word against hers. Many teachers have had their careers ruined because of scenarios such as this. Don't let it happen to you."

* Our panellist from the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association says: "It is important that you face this matter immediately.

Any perceptions you have of your own appearance are irrelevant. Your primary aim is to avert any possibility of future unfair accusations of harassment or allegations of improper behaviour being made against you.

"It is vital that you express your concerns in writing as soon as possible and log the student's attempts to communicate with you - in particular, those being made to your home (including an explanation of how she obtained your home number). Perhaps your head of department does not understand the scenario in full - putting your concerns in writing will clarify the situation.

"The student's wellbeing is a concern that cannot be ignored. If you haven't already done so, you should inform the student you are not comfortable with her inappropriate behaviour. It is probably best to do so by e-mail so it can be logged. If the student appears in any way unstable, inform the relevant personal tutor or counsellor within student services."

This advice panel includes the University and College Union, the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, Research Councils UK, the Equality Challenge Unit and Rachel Flecker, an academic who sits on Bristol University's contract research working party. Send questions to advicepanel@thes.co.uk

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