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Harassment complaints procedures have failed. Where do we go from here?

A new investigation has blown open the shadowy procedures that perpetuate abuse. But it’s time to admit we already knew they were broken, writes a former complainant
This article is more than 2 years old

Mia Liyanage is Race Equality Charter Officer at Goldsmiths, University of London and Associate at Advance HE

“We know that feeling when there’s a man in the room who, you know, is dangerous in some way.”

So I said, apparently, during my interview for Degrees of Abuse, a new investigation from Al Jazeera into sexual violence at UK universities. That quote has made it into headlines and soundbites but I don’t really remember saying it. To be honest, the two hours of that interview passed in a bit of a blur.

After it was over, I stumbled out into weak March sunshine and a world that looked exactly the same. I knew I was supposed to feel empowered by the platform, scared about the potential fallout, or guilty about spilling my former university’s secrets, depending on who was asking.

Trudging through an unfamiliar leafy suburb, I mainly felt nothing. I felt then, as I do now, that the actions of my institution had left me no choice but to speak out. What did my feelings have to do with it?

Speaking out

During my master’s degree, I submitted a complaint about a lecturer who has long faced accusations of sexual harassment, racial harassment, and drunkenness. Despite evidence of these complaints stretching back over a decade, and a joint letter from fellow lecturers in 2017, nothing had been done.

Survivors were afraid to submit formal complaints – the process can outlast a student’s course length, and usually requires complainants to reveal their identities to their abuser and submit to invasive questioning by investigators.

Amid hushed warnings that a less invasive informal complaint would result in nothing but a “slap on the wrist”, I decided to submit a formal complaint, and was joined by one student and five lecturers. All seven complaints were upheld in full.

The lecturer is still in post, and teaching, with no visible sanctions.

As many of the people reading this will already know, my story is a familiar one. In most cases I have known, a lecturer’s reputation as a serial harasser is an open secret in their department and beyond. Incredibly, this whisper network can survive for decades without prompting any formal action.

Culture of silence

As a complainant and now as an EDI (Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion) professional, I still can make neither head nor tail of what keeps these abusers shrouded in silence and shielded from consequence, even once they have been named publicly.

I can only say what I see: that academia quashes. It, and the institutions that house it, flatten complex power structures and distort moral imperatives such that colleagues feel unable to speak out.

Early career researchers fear for the impact on their jobs, while academics with tenure have long since learnt that success depends on not rocking the boat. Students – with the least power of all – are left to conclude that the buck stops with them. These features are common in all forms of harassment and abuse, not just sexual violence.

This culture of silence bleeds into complaints processes themselves. It’s suffocating, farcical, almost comical at times. Complainants have told me about handwritten letters and covert phone calls to avoid the use of institutional email. There are threats of disciplinary action if you tell anyone about the process.

Upheld complaints are rare; when they do occur, action is seldom taken. Not that that’s easy to measure: you’re lucky if you’re even informed either way. Clearly, these processes are unable to follow through on their own findings. If that’s not a catastrophic failure of the system, I don’t know what is.

I thought I knew my institution. I had been there for three years prior to the events of my masters; had invested in it my entire academic career and life as an adult, not to mention tens of thousands of pounds. I thought protection from predators was part of the deal. Instead, the university and the faculty that were supposed to protect me and others like me failed to act.

Appeal for change

Students and journalists have been pointing out these failures for a long time but institutions tend to view investigations such as Al Jazeera’s as bad-faith attacks rather than earnest appeals for change.

I’ve stated already that I went to the press because I was left with no other choice if I wanted the justice that an upheld formal complaint had promised. Not many people seem to understand that I also went to the press precisely because I care about my former university and its capacity for change.

To start that process, institutions need to begin viewing expositions of their failures as transformative reckonings, not momentary embarrassments. In my own work, I see real progress on anti-racism occurring when we move past shame and fragility.

I also know from my work on decolonising universities that complaints procedures are a central site for decolonisation – they uphold racism and misogyny where they should dismantle it. There’s such potential here for change that addresses multiple issues our sector is facing. We even have access to examples of good practice that stemmed from public reckonings.

So, what do we need from harassment complaints procedures? We need safety, so that students don’t have to choose between their academic careers and their mental health.

We need transparency in every step of the process to cut through silence and complicity. Transparency leads to accountability, to ensure that outcomes map on to actions. This needs to be external as well as internal; I’d love to see the Office for Students regulate institutions against its guidelines to prevent and address sexual harassment and misconduct, for example.

Until universities choose to break the cycle that causes pain to so many, students, staff, academic disciplines and institutions themselves will continue to suffer. I’d like to suggest that the time is now. As a colleague of mine remarked to me, we need nothing less than to blow up the room.

2 responses to “Harassment complaints procedures have failed. Where do we go from here?

  1. I have a great deal of sympathy for your position and for what has been reported in the latest news reports. However, as I understand it, until the rights of those accused are altered in law, universities can’t publish the outcome of investigations into individuals without that person’s consent (and those of the victims) and, as you can probably imagine, that is highly unlikely unless the law changes.

    If a student submits a complaint, the established position is that the disciplinary action taken against a member of staff is confidential to that member of staff and can’t be revealed to the complainant. Instead, a student would receive a rather bland statement that it is all being taken seriously. Behind the scenes it might be being taken very seriously and disciplinary action may well be taken (although the staff member may not actually be fired, safeguarding measures may be put in place, warning letters may be written, etc.). It rather depends whether HR are aware of it being an isolated instance or part of a pattern.

    That is where, undoubtedly, transparency might encourage more people to come forward and complain. However, universities can’t say anything under current legislation as these staff members haven’t been part of a legal proceeding and a finding hasn’t been published by the courts. That’s my understanding anyway; I am very happy to be told otherwise by HR professionals who know better, but that’s certainly the advice I have received previously when receiving complaints about staff members (and not about anything so sensitive, thankfully!).

    1. That’s my understanding too, and when I worked in this area, you ended up with two processes: an investigation (completed by a student-facing team), followed by (if the complaint was upheld) a disciplinary process (undertaken by HR). The former would report to the student (and even if not bland, the report was always effectively incomplete) but not the latter.

      In my experience (complete with personal bias, since I was generally only involved in the former, though I have done a handful of the other), the latter stage is where things could fall down. There were many reasons for this (though I suspect one may have been that we had specialist staff for the former but not the latter), but while I can understand the shift in responsibilities and accountabilities between the processes (as disciplinary processes come with protections for employees, and my limited experience of HE disciplinary cases is that they can be very cautious), I worried (and still worry) that separate processes may not fully deal with the risk factors (to students, and other staff) of not taking action. This is true for sexual misconduct, but also for any harrrassment or bullying claims (eg made by PhD students working in high pressure labs).

      The tension between the processes felt similar to (albeit not as pronounced) the tension between a court case that might fail (because an allegation could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt) Vs a complaint which would be upheld (because an allegation could be upheld on the balance of probability). But, while that tension will exist between criminal law and complaint cases, I’m not sure it necessarily should between complaints and discipline.

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