How to move from reactive to proactive in handling sexual misconduct

Reflecting on recent high profile cases, the 1752 Group's Anna Bull explains how universities can get on the front foot on sexual violence on campus

Anna Bull is a co-founder of The 1752 Group and a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Portsmouth .

Gemma White KC’s report into handling of sexual misconduct complaints at Trinity Hall, Cambridge now takes its place in a growing library of independent expert reports into sexual misconduct in higher education.

These started with Nicole Westmarland’s review into Sussex University in 2017, followed by Sharon Persaud’s report into Warwick in 2019, and then the Strathclyde and Herriot Watt reports in 2020.

We are awaiting a similar report into Glasgow University following the Al Jazeera Degrees of Abuse enquiry (although interestingly nothing from Oxford, which was also investigated in this coverage).

White’s report is an excellent example of what such an enquiry should do – draw out relevant findings from a comprehensive enquiry and make recommendations that can be taken up across the sector. Trinity Hall has published a response to the inquiry, detailing action taken following recommendations.

Most notable in the report is that it challenges current sector practice in one important way – White argues that in the absence of a formal complaint, institutions do not have an excuse for inaction. She puts it plainly:

I have highlighted on a number of occasions throughout this report certain views that action cannot be taken in the absence of a formal complaint. This is wrong.”

It’s incredibly helpful to have this stated so unequivocally from a senior legal expert. As White goes on to point out:

a failure to take any action contributes to an institutional environment in which such behaviour is known to be tolerated. Current and future College leadership must embrace a more proactive approach to responding to concerns, however the information is received.”

Being proactive

This stance echoes our briefing note on “proactive investigations” from 2020, co-authored with Georgina Calvert-Lee, where we argued that “where members of a university community are aware of behaviour that seems to contravene university policies and is having a harmful effect on students or the workplace”, even in the absence of a formal complaint.

In such a situation:

universities have been put on notice of a risk to their students or staff, and given that they owe a duty of care to their staff and students to protect them from foreseeable risk, we believe they would be liable for any injury or damage caused by this risk if they take no action. In other words, their duty to act should not just be triggered by a formal complaint, but also on receipt of sufficient information to put them on notice of a reasonably foreseeable risk.”

However, precisely what action should be taken is the million-dollar question. White’s examples are “an informal management conversation without disclosing the identity or identifying details of the potential complainant; bystander intervention (where the relevant behaviour has been observed); a focussed training intervention; or focussed monitoring.”

We’d add to this the use of environmental investigations where there are endemic issues across a department or research group, such as the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture investigation, as well as wider work on cultural norms and acceptable behaviours, as part of a process of building trust.

However, for higher education providers to embrace such a proactive approach will require a fairly seismic shift in approach. Based on the emergent findings of my ongoing study with Dr Erin Shannon, Higher Education After MeToo, some institutions are already dealing – and in some cases struggling – with a large volume of formal reports.

Others appear to be failing to get reports into the formal process at all, and any alternatives to formal reports – whether in student-student or staff-student cases – are dependent on the presence of proactive staff members with appropriate training. Therefore, to go beyond the current formal requirements laid out in UUK’s Changing the Culture report and move towards a proactive response is a big ask.

Nevertheless, doing so is absolutely essential, particularly for staff-student cases where students are often extremely reluctant – for very good reasons – to put their name to a formal report. I’d therefore like to see much more discussion across the sector of what such an approach could look like, and we hope that this report amplifies such a discussion.

Prevalence and policy

White’s report also makes other important recommendations, including that

students would benefit from a procedure which is specifically directed at allegations of sexual misconduct made by students against Fellows.

While having a bespoke policy in this area might seem like policy overload, such an approach is justified because social and procedural complications of staff-student complaints can lead to them being very complicated. Having a policy in place would mean that, at the very least, some of the potential procedural issues might be ironed out before this situation arises in practice.

White’s other recommendations include “cultural surveys”. This is particularly interesting in light of the recent discussion at the Women and Equalities Select Committee, at which the argument was put forward that as we already know there’s a problem, then carrying out further surveys is not a good use of resources.

It’s true that this is a resource-intensive approach especially in the absence of standardised tools for use in the UK context – an issue on which various people are currently working, as outlined here on twitter. The UK’s patchy approach to this issue, whereby individual institutions do their own thing and there’s only a minimal joined-up approach compares very unfavourably with, for example, Ireland, where there is a government-led approach to data collection and implementation of reforms.

Therefore, this recommendation could lead to a lot of poor quality, non-comparable, unpublished data being gathered and survey fatigue among students when the findings of the surveys they’ve filled in are never fed back to them. Nevertheless, the spirit of the recommendation – that higher education providers need to gather data on this issue so that they understand what is going on among their student and staff population – is a sound one, albeit as I’ve argued in this article with Susan Oman, they may wish to consider wider forms of data collection beyond surveys.

White has some innovative suggestions on information sharing, most notably devising a policy on information sharing so that students (and others) can understand the basis on which decisions are made to share information, rather than endlessly using the term “confidentiality”.

Another recommendation – that risk assessments are carried out with input from those with relevant expertise – echoes Professor Nicole Westmarland’s review for Sussex University in 2017, suggesting a lack of progress in this area (an issue also highlighted in the “Changing the Culture: Two Years On” report from 2019).

Among other recommendations, training features heavily, and this makes apparent the dearth of research-informed, transparently-evaluated training that’s currently available in this area.

Overall while many of these recommendations from White’s review are familiar to us, the clarity and thoughtfulness of this report makes it essential reading for all those working in this area. In particular, her emphatic position that failure to act on disclosures in the absence of a formal complaint is not acceptable is hugely helpful for those of us attempting to tackle staff sexual misconduct. We look forward to seeing White’s recommendations put into action.

One response to “How to move from reactive to proactive in handling sexual misconduct

  1. This work is really difficult. I am a university administrator capable of making a judgment as to whether to lower an academic misconduct penalty or award an exceptional attempt for an assessment. With sexual misconduct cases it often feels as though we are expected to act as a proxy for the police. Most cases boil down to a ‘he said, she said’ while both parties were intoxicated and increasingly accused students throw money at lawyers to try to make allegations go away.

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