Warwick’s vice chancellor has issued a statement confirming that the two male students at the heart of a recent group chat misconduct scandal will not return to the university next year.
Media reports suggest that this move was a voluntary decision on the part of the students.The news will doubtless come as a relief for the victims, who had expressed extreme distress at the prospect of having to share a campus with student peers who had apparently discussed gang raping and abusing them. It also resolves an escalating crisis for Warwick itself which, until the statement, had faced intense staff, student and alumni pressure to overturn the final outcome of a disciplinary appeal, despite it looking impossible to do so under university regulations.
The incident serves as a valuable reminder of just how important student complaints and discipline work is within higher education. In the UK, it is often neglected – administrative teams dealing with student cases tend to be small and poorly resourced, compared with university HR departments. This makes little sense when the financial and reputational stakes are potentially so high. Increasingly, students (and their parents) hire lawyers to defend themselves during misconduct investigations.
At the same time, more and more victims are turning to the university for assistance when they have been harassed or abused by other students. While this is an important and positive development – no campus should tolerate rape or sexual harassment – these investigations are deeply sensitive, and can be both complex and time-consuming. Senior university leaders have to allocate appropriate resources to student conduct teams; failure to do so in the current climate is a false economy.
Questions to answer
When mistakes do happen, however, it is vital for universities to respond appropriately. A number of questions remain unanswered at Warwick, and it’s unlikely that the university can – or should – simply move on from this incident without taking further action, particularly as the female complainants raised a number of procedural concerns. Claims of potential conflicts of interest with the complaint investigator’s day job as Press Director, suggestions of inappropriate questions to complainants about their sexual histories, and apparent failures to keep victims properly updated all constitute serious allegations which deserve proper scrutiny.
In 2016, Sussex responded to its own misconduct scandal by commissioning an independent report written by an external expert in gender-based violence. Although nothing can undo the past, independent investigations offer both victims and the wider university community a chance to have their concerns listened to and adapted into concrete recommendations, to make sure nothing similar ever happened again.
Other universities have hired a full time, dedicated member of staff to lead on responses to sexual violence and gender-based harassment, and raise these issues at all levels of the university. Taking these sort of actions at Warwick would send a powerful message to the victims, to students, and to staff – formal recognition that the institutional culture needs to change, and an active commitment to making that happen.
Signs of a shift
Interestingly, unlike with some past student misconduct stories, we’ve seen few assertions in the press this time round that Warwick’s investigations have “taken banter too seriously” or constitute “political correctness gone mad”. Perhaps this is evidence of a rapid, #MeToo-influenced shift in the sort of conversations young people find culturally acceptable.
Alternatively, it could be a reaction to the heartfelt statements and interviews given to the press by the victims this time round. At the end of the day, few reasonable people would defend a situation where students feel genuinely threatened or unsafe on campus. The “boys will be boys” approach simply no longer applies in the sphere of student conduct.
That is positive news. University students are (mostly) young adults, and often far more privileged than their peers in further education or the workplace. We can give students opportunities to grow and develop, while still holding them accountable for mistakes and misconduct. In fact, it’s in students’ best interests that we do so. Grossly offensive behaviour has a habit of coming back to shame people years later – the Governor of Virginia discovered that this week, now his job hangs in the balance after racist pictures were leaked from his decades-old college yearbook entry. Social media intensifies the risk of inappropriate conduct sticking around.
And even where university misconduct is kept under wraps, graduates will soon find that workplace definitions of harassment are, if anything, more rigid than in higher education. In an environment where even CEOs are starting to be held accountable for workplace discrimination and misconduct, there’s little scope for junior employees to get away with “banter”. Much better for universities to set – and robustly enforce – appropriate community standards and disciplinary regulations in the first place. This will not only prepare our students for the world of work to come, but also ensure that the campus is a respectful space for everyone to work and study.