Who knows about staff-to-student sexual harassment?

By The 1752 Group

One of the recurring issues around staff-to-student sexual harassment and misconduct* is that the very public knowledge of this problem gets lost within the institutional layers of the university.

Sexual harassment often occurs in public; it may occur in public spaces or it may be part of public discourse. By this we mean that many people within a university – and even outside it – will know about individuals who are perpetrators of sexual misconduct and harassment, and be aware of particular instances of harassment (see Whitley and Page 2015). This “knowledge” may take various forms, from hearsay and rumour to concrete testimony or observation. What does it mean, then, to “know” about someone’s sexual misconduct or to know that sexual harassment is occurring? It might mean that you have witnessed some form of misconduct. It might be that a friend, colleague or student has disclosed to you privately but asked you not to tell anyone else. You might have become aware that someone from your institution or a different institution has made sexual invitations to students or colleagues at a conference you have attended. It might mean that you’ve heard a rumour or had a conversation about other staff members who use their academic position to groom students for sex, or simply that you’ve heard “he has relationships with students”.

People don’t see this kind of knowledge as being reportable for the very good reason that in many institutions, it isn’t; the academic staff member may not have contravened any policies. Even if the sexual misconduct is resulting in a student being on the verge of dropping out, or not coming onto campus in order to avoid a member of staff who has sexually harassed them, this may be acceptable according to the university’s policies and procedures. If you do report this, for example to your head of department, a likely scenario is that they will tell you that they can’t do anything. This means that academic staff members may talk to a colleague who also has no idea what to do, and they may agree on their frustration and sense of mutual helplessness, but no action may arise from knowing that sexual misconduct is occurring.

As a result, this kind of knowledge means that within an institution many people may know who the sexual harassers are, and which students have dropped out or are experiencing the impact of harassers’ behaviour, and there can be many people trying to act to stop what they see is harmful behaviour for students – but nothing happens. This may be because the policies, procedures, and regulations within an institution don’t enable any action to happen – animportant issue which we will blog about soon. In this post we want to focus on how this knowledge of sexual misconduct fails to become the kind of knowledge that can be acted on within institutions.

In our experience, information about perpetrators gets blocked at various levels and therefore doesn’t necessarily get passed up to senior management. (This is leaving aside the instances where it does get passed up to senior management and still nothing happens). How does this occur? There are many ways it gets blocked. Firstly, at the level of colleague to colleague, harmful sexual behaviour can be minimised or dismissed when someone raises concerns: “Everyone knows that X is like that.” Secondly, since sexual harassment and misconduct appear to be particularly prevalent at postgraduate level (according to recent research from the US), those who are responsible for postgraduate students have particular responsibilities here. Therefore another level of blockage is by the PhD convenor or the Graduate School. Staff in these positions may genuinely have no idea what to do, and policies are often too vague to be helpful. Even if the policies have a clear chain of reporting with named people, the Graduate School, or similar structure, may lack any official institutional power to act. (And as we will discuss in later posts, dealing with this issue often requires acting outside of an institution’s official policies and procedures, and therefore relies on having enough status within the institution to be able to get someone to listen).

Knowledge of sexual misconduct or harassment may also be blocked at the level of the Head of Department (HoD). The HoD is the obvious person to report to and may be named on the institution’s policies around staff-to-student sexual harassment – if such policies exist. However, we are aware of instances where the HoD has supported the harassers and ignored or erased student complaints. The HoD may also be unavailable to students, or students may be intimidated at the thought of reporting to someone with such academic authority, or who may share a friendship with the harassing member of staff. If students do report, the HoD may genuinely believe (and have good reason to believe) that there is nothing they can do through official channels. They may have tried to pass it up the chain of command and received no response.

Rather than disclosing to the HoD, students may choose to disclose to another member of academic staff who they feel comfortable with, such as their personal tutor. We are aware of instances where academic staff members who have tried to support students to make complaints of sexual harassment against staff members have themselves been subject to bullying and threats. This is particularly problematic for the many staff members on precarious contracts. However, it is not clear what responsibility academics have for the sexual misconduct of their colleagues. By contrast, the General Medical Council specifies that sexual relationships and indecent behaviour towards patients is unethical, and that members are expected to report colleagues who breach these guidelines. Such guidelines on professional boundaries are lacking for academic staff.

In addition,  in common with the recent focus on peer-to-peer sexual harassment, institutions may keep inadequate formal records, or staff may not be aware of requirements for record-keeping from the institution. Even worse, we are aware of instances where complaints by students of harassment were deleted and/or ignored. If students are unwilling to be named (which is to be expected given the nature of the offence which may lead to students being afraid of retribution from their harassers and others connected with them) then there may be no record kept at all.

Finally, this issue gets blocked because those who know look the other way. People don’t want to get involved because it creates a huge amount of work – both administrative work and emotional labour. There may be limited time and resources for pastoral care within the institution, not to mention a lack of training for staff entering an institution around appropriate ways of responding to such disclosures and supporting students who are dealing with this issue.

There is also a serious lack of experience and knowledge in the higher education sector around how to handle complaints and reporting of sexual misconduct. We have heard of responses within institutions along the lines of “We’ve never had a complaint on this issue before”. If this is true, it is also very worrying, as this issue has certainly occurred within their institution at some point, given that one in six female postgraduate students in the US have experienced sexual harassment from a supervisor or advisor. This kind of statement indicates that an institution’s complaints policy is inadequate. We have found that there is a lack of expertise among HR departments to carry out this type of investigation. Indeed, there is a question to be addressed around who is the right person/level/department to investigate complaints of staff-to-student sexual misconduct. It may not be clear from university policies whose responsibility it is. We would suggest that complaints of this nature should always be flagged up at senior management level, but it is likely that external expertise will need to be brought in to carry out an investigation.

Given all of these levels of blockages, it is no wonder that this issue is hardly on the public agenda. It is visible mainly in student attrition rates and mental health problems, and the occasional story that reaches the press. We suggest to senior management teams within universities that if they don’t know about problems of staff-to-student sexual harassment within their institution, they need to start asking around. Many people will know.

* In this blog post we are writing for anyone within a higher education institution who is thinking about how to tackle staff-to-student sexual harassment and misconduct. Sexual misconduct involves forms and abuses of power enacted by academic and professional staff in their relations with students. Sexual harassment is one of many behaviours encompassed by misconduct, which can include grooming, bullying, sexual invitations, and promised resources in return for sexual access.


Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page. 2015. Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment. New Formations 86: 34-53. Available at: https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/new-formations/86/sexism-at-centre-locating-problem-of-sexual-harassment (free access thanks to New Formations journal).