Environmental investigations in practice: reflections on the Howlett Brown report into UCL

There’s growing interest in the HE sector in ‘environmental investigations’ to tackle staff sexual misconduct. A helpful piece of work in this area was published in June 2022, when UCL published a report from HR agency Howlett Brown following an environmental investigation which they had commissioned into the Barlett School of Architecture (BSA) at UCL. It was was commissioned by UCL after public coverage of issues of poor culture, bullying and sexual misconduct arising over a period of time at the Bartlett.

UCL have previously used this method internally, as covered in this podcast. This is a really important tool to use in tackling sexual misconduct, where people may be scared to speak out (for very good reasons). It’s to UCL’s credit that not only have they used a reputable external company but they have also published this report.

This report has important reflections on complaints practices and staff-student relationships policies. We’ll highlight just a few important points from the report. It documents ‘serious misconduct involving bullying, misogynistic and anti-Semitic behaviour’ from senior leaders within the BSA. This includes one leader who was ‘alleged to have created a ‘boys club’ where they were able to protect other members of staff from the consequences of their conduct, through actions such as deleting complaints, and normalising bad behaviour’. Furthermore the report states that ‘we were informed of two incidents where a particular staff member allegedly failed to take appropriate action about complaints and instead victim- blamed the complainants who were trying to speak up.’ Such issues with the culture at the BSA – over a period of decades, despite attempts at interventions – are documented in detail in the report.

In terms of wider implications for tackling sexual misconduct, at least two important points arise. The first is in relation to staff-student sexual relationships policies in HE. In 2020 UCL introduced a new personal relationships policy to regulate staff-student sexual and romantic or intimate relationships, prohibiting these when there was a teaching and learning relationship existing. Howlett Brown’s report includes critical reflections on this policy, noting that ‘we found that UCL’s personal relationship policy does not adequately safeguard students from sexual harassment or inappropriate conduct taking place’ (p.39). This is because ‘the policy should go further and highlight at an earlier stage to readers how to spot the signs of an inappropriate relationship, power imbalance or address how to respond when a complaint has been made, including how best to support all who might be impacted.’

They also argued ‘Even if that staff member or tutor has little oversight or connection to a student’s work product or education, a staff member and tutor by virtue of their role has power which it can abuse and use to influence the experiences of a student’ (P.40) But, ‘because of the lack of attention and focus such policies have on power, age appears to be the single, most relevant factor that is considered in the context of a student or staff member consenting to a relationship.’ They argue that ‘this is a wholly incorrect assessment and it exposes students and staff to safeguarding and wellbeing risks. Based on our experience, we find that a student can never truly consent to a personal relationship due to the power structures within a student and tutor relationship’ (p.40)

We strongly agree with this. A policy is only as good as the staff and organisational culture within which it is being implemented. This also echoes Prof Westmarland’s recommendations from her review at Uni of Sussex in 2017. This is important because when UCL introduced this policy, it was seen as progressive and bold, but there still remain only a handful of universities in the UK where staff-student relationships are prohibited. But as this review shows, even this step is not enough to safeguard students within such a strong power imbalance.

The second major point to draw out from this report is the recommendations on complaints policies. The report notes that “We received many reports of complaints that were escalated and left without resolution or conclusion nor was there any evidence or commentary shared by participants regarding the use or awareness of the appeal process.” (p.48). It recommends that UCL “should reassess the persons responsible for investigating certain complaints and the threshold at which some complaints ought to be referred to an entirely independent party outside of the BSA and UCL where appropriate.” And it further recommends that UCL should “update policies and procedures for legal compliance, best practice, clarity, and alignment with the values”

This report follows a longer-term commitment from UCL to addressing bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct, with dedicated funding of £200,000 going into this area in 2018. If these recommendations are being made to UCL, who have done important work on leading on promising practices – not least embedding environmental investigations as a response to anonymous reports from Culture Shift, the company who run Report and Support software – then they are DEFINITELY relevant to many other UK HEIs

As other commentators have pointed out, such work needs to get into the siloes that exist within universities, where departmental and/or disciplinary cultures can prove resistant to wider reforms as Jim Dickinson outlines on WonkHE. This is particularly relevant for UCL and other larger institutions where siloes might exist, but a lot of the findings and recommendations also seem highly relevant to small specialist institutions such as music conservatoires where similar cultures of informal selection/hierarchies occur

UCL have issued an apology and it is to be hoped that the new Provost will continue to invest in this area and will investigate other areas of the institution where there is evidence of similar issues. And other institutions please note – THIS is how you should be using anonymous reporting data – to identify areas of your institution where there are embedded cultures of bullying, harassment and abuses of power, and proactively addressing them.

Our briefing note #1 on proactive investigations works along similar lines to environmental investigations and also see resources on precautionary/interim measures to take when receiving a report of staff sexual misconduct. And our ongoing research #Higher Education After MeToo will lead to a short report this autumn with further updates on where the sector as a whole is at in terms of handling complaints.

Anna Bull, June 2022