University leaders ‘prioritising reputation over tackling harassment’

But vice-chancellor says UK sector is at ‘tipping point’ of culture change 

March 12, 2020
Source: iStock

UK university leaders are still wary of tackling racism and sexism on campus because of fears that improved reporting procedures could damage the reputation of their institutions, a vice-chancellor has claimed.

David Richardson, vice-chancellor of the University of East Anglia and chair of a Universities UK (UUK) group that aims to address racial harassment, told institutional leaders not to “be afraid” that better reporting mechanisms could mean they are seen “by the press as a university where, for example, sexual harassment or racial harassment is rife”.

“That’s where some of our universities worry about reputation. I don’t. There is much more reputational gain to be seen as a university that’s actually challenging these issues,” he said.

“The most important thing is to get a good reporting process in place, so you can identify the true scale of the problem and then you can tackle it and you’ll know if you are making progress.”

Speaking at a UUK conference on tackling violence, harassment and hate incidents on 11 March, Professor Richardson said that when he became a vice-chancellor five years ago he would have been “wary” about chairing a national group tackling racial harassment because there is “genuine fear of being way outside one’s comfort zone”. But he said that it was important for university leaders to “promote conversations” about these issues, even if they “don’t have all the answers”.

He revealed that he spray-painted statistics on racial and sexual harassment across his campus to emphasise the institution’s recognition of the problem. The move did not cause reputational damage – it was, in fact, celebrated on social media.

Cara Aitchison, president and vice-chancellor of Cardiff Metropolitan University and chair of UUK’s Staff to Student Sexual Misconduct Advisory Group, said that she “feels more confident now than I have at any time” in her 33-year career about the leadership of the UK university sector and its ability to tackle harassment.

“Among leaders of organisations there needed to be that culture change and that tipping point where some of those voices that felt marginalised now feel more able to speak. And I do think we’re at that [stage]. It is almost like a tipping point,” she said.

“There is something to appeal to at the top in a way that there perhaps hasn’t been before. We’ve seen very different sorts of people, particularly recently, move into vice-chancellor positions…We are now pushing at quite an open door, and v-cs want to find solutions to these problems.”

Professor Aitchison added that implementing policies on staff-student relationships must become a priority for universities, and it was only “a matter of time” before governing bodies would be required to analyse statistics on staff-student sexual misconduct.

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