Solutions for Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education

By Dr Emma Chapman, Dr Anna Bull and Dr Tiffany Page

The coverage of sexual harassment has shown no sign of slowing and, while it’s tempting to take a break and gather ourselves, the momentum behind reform provides a significant opportunity for long-lasting change. Or does it? In higher education, we have seen similar, if smaller-scale, media coverage of staff-to-student sexual misconduct before (Berkeley, Caltech, Sussex) and yet it remains as endemic as it was before that coverage. While the grass-roots activism has engaged in this area, there has been little willingness for universities to accept they are part of the problem, and impose the necessary policy change. The policies protecting perpetrators and imposing confidentiality on complainants cannot be changed overnight but what we do have is a chance to expedite the reform of those frameworks.

This post provides recommendations for anyone involved in a sexual misconduct case, for those working in higher education who want guidance for implementing processes in their own institutions, and for those who want to help boost the momentum for higher education sector reform going forward. This is intended to be an overview to instigate further action and we will be writing blog posts focusing on how we are working towards the individual areas in coming weeks.

We use the term sexual misconduct to describe forms of power enacted by academic, professional, contracted, and temporary staff in their relations with students (this can also occur in relations with other staff members) in higher education. Sexual misconduct can include harassment, assault, grooming, coercion, bullying, sexual invitations and demands, comments, non-verbal communication, creation of atmospheres of discomfort, and promised resources in exchange for sexual access. The term ‘sexual harassment’ captures only some of the possible abuses of power that may occur within a higher education institution. Sexual misconduct impacts students of all gender identities and sexualities. It raises issues of unequal relationships, consent, and the prevention of equal access to education for all.

The Survivor

If you are considering reporting a case of sexual misconduct then the more prepared you are the better, both in terms of the support that can be helpful, the material evidence you have, and in the expectations of what will happen.

  • Find allies. First, find allies and make the issue a collective one. The more people who are working together on this issue, the more likely that you will be able to challenge powerful individuals who are engaging in forms of sexual misconduct, or covering up for others who do so. Choose allies carefully by sounding people out first, for example asking around about stories of sexual harassment and misconduct.
  • Manage your expectations. Disciplinary processes can last months to over a year, depending on the level of appeal, and you will probably not be informed of how the process is progressing or the eventual outcome. This uncertainty can be crippling if you are not expecting it but if you go in knowing this will be a long process you can better compartmentalise it. Dismissal of staff remains extremely rare and so managing the expectation that this will happen is important. Even in cases where there has been proven criminal activity it can be only when cases draw media attention that perpetrators resign, without completing the process. Having said that, reporting is incredibly important. It can be empowering; it might be your only option to protect yourself going forward; or sometimes it just feels like the right thing to do.
  • Record everything. Assuming you choose to go ahead, start to record everything, not just about the misconduct itself, but of the reporting and investigation process. Keep emails (create backups), write up notes from meetings, take a supporter as a witness to interviews and document any negative effects on your health or ability to work. Ask for timelines in the process and put any request for an update or enquiry in email. This information is also necessary if you wish to refer your complaint to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator (OIA). Please see below for more on this.
  • Read the policies. Make sure you read through your university’s disciplinary process so you know roughly what to expect. Going to your student mediator and student union and seeking advice can help in understanding the process. The investigation and conclusion will often take longer than any stated timelines and if they decide to move to a disciplinary hearing or similar which is led through HR, this shift in responsibility is important. Where the student was a complainant within an internal investigation procedure, if the institution decides that disciplinary proceedings should be initiated, the student then moves to becoming a witness only – and this can be extremely disempowering. This means that students are often not informed of the outcomes of disciplinary cases, even if they are due to the complaint made by the student. If your university has a tribunal-style hearing you may be asked to give evidence in person in the room. If you are uncomfortable with this, or simply do not want to (it may involve the perpetrator questioning you), ask for the opportunity to give evidence from behind a screen or via video link. Universities have different ways of dealing with complaints so confirm the process being followed at your first meeting before you decide to go forward.
  • Stay safe. The most important advice we can give is to make sure you feel safe. Counselling services should be offered to you at the first point of disclosure but if at any point you begin to feel physically threatened by the perpetrator then document this and involve the police. University disciplinary processes do not judge whether actions are criminal, so remember harassment is illegal – including any retaliation that you experience as a result of reporting. Remember that no-one can compel you to contribute to an internal investigation or hearing. You may not feel in control, but you are.
  • Talk to the OIA. The Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education (OIA) is an independent body set up to review student complaints on a range of issues. We encourage people who have made a complaint to their university regarding any form of staff sexual misconduct to consider contacting the OIA if they feel this complaint has been unreasonably delayed, or dealt with inadequately. While the OIA focuses on student complaints, complaints brought by former students can be considered if the misconduct occurred whilst the complainant was a student and complained to the university at the time. The OIA usually requires an end-of-process letter, which should be provided by the higher education provider on completion of procedures, but you may have to specifically ask for one and in some circumstances they can take on a case without one. You can also contact them for an informal discussion. We have worked with the OIA to provide guidance for student, which can be found here as well as contact details.
  • Legal advice.  Do not take a university’s word that they are legally bound to carry out a particular action or impose a level of confidentiality. The policies that many universities follow are outdated, biased against complainants, and in the worst examples, possibly discriminatory under UK equalities law. Consider taking legal advice if possible but if you are unable to afford legal fees, which we recognise is a significant issue, seek guidance from your student union. If you are a student who is also employed by the institution, by joining UCU (the staff union) you are entitled to union representation.

The Supporter

“It’s time for everyone within a department to recognise that this is part of their responsibility for their students and the wellbeing of the wider academic community”

A supporter is anyone who is willing to believe and support a student complainant, and is often a staff member. They can also play an important role in ensuring complaints are taken seriously. On a wider level, they can start to work towards cultural change within institutions.

  • Be visible. Make it known within your group or department that you are available to talk and are sympathetic to the problem of sexual misconduct. There have been excellent examples of supporters organising into ‘listening groups’ which ensures the workload is shared.
  • Know the policies. Familiarise yourself with your university’s disciplinary process so you can lay out the options to the student and perhaps accompany them to their meetings for moral support and as a witness. Always signpost them to experts within the university in addition however, for example a student mediator or students union.
  • Know your limits. The time commitment involved in supporting a complaint is significant, but that is not a reason not to take on the role. It is a reason for everyone within a department to recognise that this is part of their responsibility for their students and the wellbeing of the wider academic community. Unfortunately, the number of supporters willing to speak up is still low enough that, if you take on this role you may find other staff referring students to you, and you risk becoming burnt out. Know your boundaries and if you are feeling the weight, delegate or step away (this is always okay to do).
  • Don’t be conflict averse. Needless to say, if you are a supporter with power, use it! If you can add weight to a person’s claim simply by saying “I believe them” to your head of department, that can go a long way. Just knowing someone more senior is watching can cause a university to behave in a better manner.
  • Start discussions. Organise an event, talk, or discussion in your institution about staff-student sexual relationships and sexual misconduct. Partner with your student union and request involvement and action from the UCU through meetings and talks, who as an organisation must start taking a leadership role in addressing staff sexual misconduct. Playwright Phil Thomas has made her short play about this topic publicly available under a Creative Commons license. A play reading of this piece sets the scene well for a discussion of the complexities of this issue. Discussions or talks need to include a focus on power imbalances and the ways in which this makes students vulnerable, an awareness of which tends to be absent from discussions of this issue.

The University

“Disciplinary processes are often outdated, and can be discriminatory towards the complainant, which makes this a question of equal access to education under UK equalities law.”

  • Break the Silence. Universities have been largely silent over the issue of staff-sexual misconduct, except to comment that they take the issue very seriously but cannot discuss individual cases when prompted by the media. The unrealistic expectations of confidentiality imposed around disciplinary processes serve not only to stifle complainants’ ability to protect themselves from retaliation, but give the impression of few consequences for sexual misconduct. When considering the confidentiality around the policies keep in mind that extra protection for the perpetrator may be equivalent to extra discrimination towards the complainant. Be open about the problem so that you can fully engage with groups like ourselves instigating reform. Sexual misconduct is present across the UK in all types of higher education institutions. If the sector speaks out as a whole and acknowledges the issue (or even a group within the sector, such as the Russell Group) then it will be much easier to work towards changing policies. The frameworks to do this exist and the space is primed for forward-thinking institutions to lead these reforms.
  • Code of conduct. In terms of prevention, there is no standard definition of professional boundaries within higher education. For example, investigations by The Guardian in March 2017 found that a third of UK universities do not have a policy on staff-student relationships. Universities should ensure that they have an enforceable code of conduct in place which clearly defines the expectations on behaviour of staff. It should define the consequences of not following that code (the disciplinary process) and the channel for reporting an incident of misconduct. This code of conduct should be signed as part of the induction process for all students and staff, and given to temporary visitors on arrival. All conferences should have an enforceable code of conduct, that clearly states forms of sexual misconduct and the consequences of violating behavior, including responsibilities for action when the staff member is from another institution. Universities should require all conferences attended by their students to have a code of conduct that is agreed to by all attendees as part of their participation.
  • Disciplinary processes. The enforceability of the code of conduct is vital in order to result in a culture change and universities should be looking at their own disciplinary procedures in relation to their code of conduct. Disciplinary processes are often outdated and can be discriminatory towards the complainant, which, since complainants are disproportionately women, makes this a question of equal access to education under UK equalities law. We are working with law firm McAllister Olivarius to produce best practice in this area. In the meantime, universities should carry out an internal equality audit on their disciplinary processes (examining the potential for race and disability inequalities as well as gender) in consultation with both undergraduate and postgraduate student representatives and the UCU and student union.
  • Listen to your students. Recognise your responsibility towards your students. Whether you want to frame this as the morally right thing to do, a health and safety issue or brand protection, ignoring the issue is not an option any more. Implement anonymous and third party reporting tools that trigger internal investigations according to quantity or seriousness of complaints. This means that anonymous reporting must lead to action and not simple data gathering, as students may depend on this as a way to communicate their experiences, only to find that nothing changes. Implement exit interviews for PhD students and ECRs, and ask the question “Was the quality/appropriateness of your supervisor acceptable?”.
  • Support staff who support students. Encourage all staff to have the supporter attitude so the load is shared. Women and academics of colour bear much of the labour, which is not recognised through career progression, and it impacts their work and mental health. Recognise the contribution of the few (teaching credits, reduced administration) or better still employ dedicated, independent misconduct support officers who can guide students through the process. The supporter role is particularly difficult at present because inadequate policies behind disciplinary processes make the support process very time consuming.
  • Culture change. In order for sustainable change the problem of sexual misconduct should be considered as the responsibility of everyone to solve. However, this requires visible and vocal leadership, and the university’s executive board should nominate some of its members to lead on tackling harassment and misconduct. Many universities are implementing consent training,  active bystander training programmes and other initiatives, following Universities UK’s 2016 report Changing the Culture. By introducing multi-faceted culture change programmes such as these, not only for staff but for undergraduates and ECRs too, you can quickly make the majority of people aware of the standards of behavior required by your institution. This will also help to make it clear it isn’t the just responsibility of the few to speak out against sexual misconduct, but it is instead everyone’s responsibility of to maintain a safe, equal and supportive environment. For guidance and help on culture change see the best practice work being done by Professor Alison Phipps and Changing University Cultures (CHUCL).

The Sector

“We want to see research councils and learned societies include requirements for robust policies and track record for supporting students in their conditions for awarding doctoral funding or accreditation to institutions”

 We ensure that any changes implemented within universities are enforceable by engaging the frameworks supporting universities, such as UUK, NUS, UCU, funding councils and learned societies.

  • Data. At The 1752 Group we are working hard to help universities in reform. This academic year we are running a national study in conjunction with the National Union of Students (NUS), to survey and understand what students define as appropriate professional boundaries and to collect data on the types of misconduct students are currently experiencing. If you have a non-NUS affiliated union within your university then get in contact and we can disseminate the survey to you as well. However, the onus should not be on unions, journalists, and researchers to provide data. The Department for Education should gather and publish annual national-level data, requiring institutions to submit the number of reports of staff sexual misconduct, the number of disciplinary hearings, and the outcomes of these hearings. This data should be publicly reported on an annual basis.
  • Professional boundaries. We are drawing on experiences within other sectors, for example medicine and therapy, but also recently theatre, to define professional boundaries in higher education. In the longer term we plan to provide a nationwide code of conduct and disciplinary process reform. This could be tied to professional bodies such as the Higher Education Authority.
  • Enforceability The key to sustainable change in sexual misconduct is enforceability and this is where the sector really has a part to play. Universities UK has named staff sexual misconduct as one of its ‘next steps’ following its ‘Changing the Culture’ report, and we will be disseminating best practice guidelines via UUK once they have been formulated. UCU and NUS can hold institutions to account, and participate in consultation on new policies to make sure their members are protected.
  • Consequences.  Universities have a responsibility to provide a safe working environment for their students in every respect. The impact of staff-to-student misconduct is devastating and yet currently is not seen as part of health and safety, safeguarding, or wellbeing duties provided by institutions through equality charters such as Athena SWAN. We want to see research councils and learned societies include requirements for robust policies and track record for supporting students in their conditions for awarding doctoral funding or accreditation to institutions (The National Institute for Health Research requires Athena Swan Silver), as this has potential to be a powerful motivation for institutions to implement and monitor change.

In conclusion, the process of reform within higher education is neither short nor easy but everyone has a part to play. In fact, the only way any change will be sustainable is if that change percolates through the whole academic system from the Department of Education, to research councils, charters, institutions, departments, and to students. Let’s get started.