“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?
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.