Changing the culture on sexual misconduct means listening to the vulnerable

Debbie McVitty asks what can be learned from the Tortoise investigation of sexual misconduct on university campuses

Last week “slow news” media site Tortoise published the results of a months-long investigation into sexual misconduct on university campuses.

The most eye-catching story concerned three interlinked cases of alleged sexual misconduct at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and exposed the limitations of the collegiate system in dealing with these sorts of cases with the degree of professionalism we really should be able to expect by now. No doubt the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge – and their central university administrations – are doing some thinking about lines of responsibility for the safeguarding of students and the governance of these sorts of misconduct complaints.

Non-collegiate universities didn’t escape censure either though, with an accompanying analysis of sexual misconduct policies at 60 UK universities. Many of which apparently include provisions that are hard to explain, such as setting time limits for submission of complaints of sexual misconduct.

Though some of the universities named in the report have subsequently updated their policies, given the three years that have now passed since the Universities UK Changing the Culture report which was supposed to address these sorts of issues head-on, it seems odd that the Tortoise investigation should have found so many gaps.

In the wake of the Changing the Culture report, many universities did intensive work on sexual misconduct and harassment. We’ve written about some of that work on Wonkhe before. But – without jumping to conclusions about the state of practice in the sector as a whole – the Tortoise investigation raised some serious questions.

Love it or change it

Changing the Culture was admirably wide-ranging, encompassing sexual misconduct and violence, hate crime and harassment. The premise of the need for “culture change” that framed the report was a positive one, holding that universities, especially senior leaders and boards of governors, should promote an inclusive culture in which sexual misconduct, harassment and hate crime and their associated behaviours are not tolerated.

The analysis that without active intervention, such as bystander training, institutional cultures tend not to be inclusive in that problematic behaviours go unchallenged, was valuable. But arguably it was limited in two important ways. It was general enough to allow for positive intervention in some areas but not others, with lots of focus on issues around student on student misconduct and harassment, for example, with perhaps less focus on the more difficult issue of alleged misconduct by university staff.

And, vitally, it went very much with the grain of universities’ self-conceptions. For example, the foreword to Universities UK’s Changing the Culture: two years on report asserts, “Any form of harassment against students or staff represents an abuse of power which goes against the values and standards of behaviour expected across the university community.” This otherwise worthy sentiment could be seen as shutting down analysis of the various ways that university cultures and practices tacitly permit abuses of power – ways that lecturer Charlotte Riley sets out in her piece for Tortoise.

By “othering” examples of harassment, abuse or hate, and by seeing these as isolated incidents, it makes it very difficult to see where the system itself is working in favour of protecting the powerful and silencing the vulnerable. We see this too, in the example of use of non-disclosure agreements to settle allegations of sexual misconduct. Even where these are (supposedly) by mutual consent, they can prevent analysis of patterns and repeat offences, as it’s been argued they did in the case of Harvey Weinstein.

We’ve seen this kind of thinking again and again in examples of systemic problematic attitudes and behaviours. Lots of people struggled to get their heads round the existence of antisemitic sentiment in the Labour party because Labour activists and MPs are, by and large, actively anti-racist and consider themselves to be the good guys. When systemic failures in patient care were investigated in North Middlesex hospital, people found it hard to believe that trusted public servants – doctors and nurses – were part of the problem. The discovery that aid workers for Oxfam were routinely abusing women in Haiti and that the organisation had failed to deal with the problem is another comparable case.

It’s worth noting that toxic cultures are perpetuated when people aren’t held accountable for their actions. The tried and tested resolution of quietly moving someone on or encouraging them to retire doesn’t absolve the university of responsibility for investigating and acting if there is evidence of misconduct – in fact it just perpetuates the problem.

Policy from the perspective of the powerless

At the level of policy development, institutions need to consider how the voices of those with a meaningful perspective on the issue can develop and test policies from their perspective. For example, anyone who’d ever experienced sexual misconduct or violence, or who had been in a position vulnerable to it, could see that setting a time limit for reporting of “incidents” is entirely untenable, as is the idea that the complainants are not informed of the outcome of their complaint, or a recommendation of efforts to “resolve the issue” informally.

Try asking a contract researcher of their view of the complaints policy and process in the hypothetical situation that they were being sexually harassed by a member of the professoriate, and see if it still looks watertight. Even better, ask victims of sexual misconduct whether they think the process was well-handled, and use that lived experience to do better next time.

Victims of sexual misconduct need sustained support, and to be believed, in principle – and so do alleged perpetrators, whether staff or student. Somebody independent with the appropriate skill set needs to investigate the issue where a complaint has been raised. It should go without saying that none of these can be the same person.

Thinking that sexual misconduct boils down to single incidents is a misunderstanding of how it can work. It can be a build-up of small moments, all subject to interpretation, that provoke discomfort but can be explained away. If and when the line is comprehensively crossed the victim not only has to deal with the trauma of the experience, but may feel foolish for not having taken steps earlier, wonder if they have given the wrong signals, and worry about the personal consequences of seeking redress.

It’s also worth being reflective about the environments in which development of the policies takes place. Committees are excellent spaces to watch power dynamics in action, less fun if you’re a woman or a person of colour trying to get your contribution heard. But even setting aside structural inequalities, anyone trying to express a view that runs contrary to received wisdom can find their life is made very difficult in a committee-style discussion.

Logging third-party concerns should be accounted for under disciplinary policies. It might be inappropriate for third parties to raise a complaint on behalf of another student or staff member, but there should be a way of flagging a concern, in confidence. The “not safe in taxis” warning system in which people quietly alert each other about known sexual predators is hardly fit for purpose – but the fact that it exists, and is premised on the fact that everyone knows but no-one will act, suggests that there is a need for institutions to engage with this kind of informal knowledge, even if it’s not yet actionable in its informal state.

There’s more to unpack in the Tortoise pieces – I haven’t picked up on the question of staff-student relationships, or the notion that if something happens off-campus the university is absolved of having to do anything about it. Those with greater expertise and knowledge on these issues will have an analysis of the limitations of specific institutional policies and culture.

But my point is this: senior leaders and governors being able to take responsibility for effective oversight of sexual misconduct issues and associated culture change means moving beyond monitoring of “incidents” to assessing whether they are in a position to hear and act on truths from those who have less power.

Nicola Dandridge has said that the Office for Students will be prepared to intervene if there is evidence of failure to address sexual misconduct, violence and harassment and OfS is consulting on its expectations in this area. The precise nature of the action OfS would take in such a case is somewhat murky, but in this area, it might be reasonable for the regulator to threaten to appoint independent investigators to produce a public report of institutional failings. That would certainly focus minds.

Join us at The Secret Life of Students in March where we’ll interrogate the theme of “student safety” in depth. 

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