Outdated university rules ‘protect harassers and bullies’

Jessica Wade tells THE summit that younger institutions can create better equality policies from scratch

June 26, 2019
Jess Wade speaking at the Young Universities Summit

Older universities may be more likely to be stuck with out-of-date rules and procedures that “protect” academics who “behave very badly” and are accused of misconduct, a Times Higher Education summit has heard.

Jessica Wade, postdoctoral physics researcher at Imperial College London who has championed women in science, said the “oldest and most prestigious” universities were more likely to crop up among reports of sexual harassment and bullying allegations and the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

This was potentially down to being tied to regulations and processes established many years ago, whereas modern universities may find it easier to adapt their models to the modern world.  

“If you’ve got an academic structure that you’re designing from the beginning, you can create rules and policies that protect people from under-represented backgrounds and diverse communities,” Dr Wade told a panel discussion at THE’s Young Universities Summit.

“But if you are living on policies and laws that protect very old-school academics who behave very badly…then of course you’re going to have more…of these accusations.”

Recent revelations have suggested there has been an explosion in the use of NDAs by universities, which in some cases have stopped academics speaking out about misconduct allegations once they have left an institution.

Dr Wade said the revelations and reports of sexual harassment and bullying showed that there was a lot more work to do on gender and other equality issues despite the ground made in the UK by schemes like the Athena SWAN awards, which aim to recognise the institutions and departments performing best on diversity.

“It feels like [universities] are doing a lot on paper to say they’re gender equal…but in reality there’s a lot of silence, anger and upset and these [allegations and use of NDAs] are sneaking out.

“So I think we’re quite good at giving each other awards and celebrating but actually on the ground there [are]…incidents that are not making them [equal in terms of] gender, socio-economic background or ethnicity.”

Antoine van Oijen, Australian Research Council laureate fellow at the University of Wollongong, told the panel debate at the University of Surrey that young universities might also be better at taking “risks” to make leaps on diversity.

He gave as an example the decision by the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands this month to open up all academic jobs exclusively to women for the first few months of recruitment.

“This is a big move…that also comes with business risks if you are essentially cutting your pool of applicants in half. That is why I wonder whether such a risky proposition is something that younger universities would be more likely to take,” Professor van Oijen said.

However, Dr Wade added that, despite younger universities seeming to have a better record in some respects on equality, there was other data suggesting the opposite.

“When you look at the [universities] that have the highest gender pay gap it is the youngest universities,” she said, showing that the picture was sometimes “confusing”.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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