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Sent to Coventry: what can we learn from the Warwick group chat scandal?

Are there lessons for the sector to learn from the Warwick group chat scandal? Jenny Hoogewerf-McComb takes a look.
This article is more than 5 years old

Jenny Hoogewerf-McComb is a Faculty Support Officer at Durham University

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.

7 responses to “Sent to Coventry: what can we learn from the Warwick group chat scandal?

  1. I’m surprised that you have only mentioned the VC, Stuart Croft, at the beginning of this article, as his leadership, or lack thereof, has been prominent in the last week. This perhaps highlights a root cause at Warwick, beyond the actual misdemeanour itself, of an absence of leadership and transparent procedures.

    As is so often the case, perhaps even more so post-GDPR, everything has been kept very secret, and the timeframe of when it happened is not clear, but the first leaking of it to the student press was in May 2018, yet the screenshots do not appear to show dates beyond January/February. This suggests that it was only leaked because of exasperation at the University process, and indeed follow-up anonymous letters from those that reported it suggest that this is the case.

    Despite dissatisfaction with the original group chat member leaker being let off without even a disciplinary hearing, as well as a number of the group members being allowed to return this year, it seems like the decision was generally accepted as justice being seen to have been done, even if the details were kept completely confidential (as is standard). However, the result of a completely secret appeal has led to the ban being shortened for two of the worst offending students, and it can only be assumed that a leaking dissatisfied person aware of the appeal, whether a student representative or member of staff,is the only reason that this has come out into the open (although the return of the students in person would surely have caused this to blow up next year).

    Even now, this appeal is apparently due process (albeit amateur justice), and so should be defendable by the Vice-Chancellor, and yet he fuelled the flames of controversy with an atrocious open letter. If you haven’t read it, I recommend you take a look at it, because it could be a good example of how not to publically defend a controversial decision, and how to lose the respect that your leadership role should give you:

    As the President of Warwick’s SU has said, the VC will have to resign if he doesn’t address dissatisfaction with the University disciplinary process in public, but the main reason it has come to this for Stuart personally is because of that letter!

    From a personal perspective (as a Warwick member of staff), I have very little trust in Warwick’s central procedures and so I don’t blame those that raised the case, or were witness to it, for leaking the details at all. I also won’t be surprised if the university is sued successfully by the defendants as the process was probably a shambles for both parties.

  2. I agree with much of what the author says about challenges faced by complaints and disciplinary teams in general in HEIs,and the overall societal shift in terms of duty of care and disclosure. However I expect WonkHE articles not to speculate or encourage speculation on legal cases or indeed make unfounded assertions on individuals. There has been a lot of “trial by social media” and this can easily ignite another HEI. For the record, I work in sexual violence support and can confirm that Warwick was one of the first to appoint a permanent Independent Sexual Violence Advice Counsellor, along with a student-designed education programme on dignity and respect. Clearly more does need to happen at Warwick, but also elsewhere too.

  3. Paula, I understand the desire to avoid trial by media, but if WonkHE isn’t a place to discuss controversial issues, especially when they are in the media, then it will lose a lot of interest. The USS discussions were conspicuous by their absence until late on in the striking process, when WonkHE could have provided a great place for open discussion of the issues and perhaps education. This is a decision for the editors to make, but I don’t agree with your statement that there were unfounded assertions on individuals, and the argument about not speculating on the result of legal cases, when everything is so opaque (and likely to remain so), is very anti-transparency in my opinion.

    My point here was to highlight the poor (or absence of) leadership at Warwick University, something that I didn’t make lightly, but with direct experience of working in over 5 different HE institution in the UK and Europe, feel am in a good position to judge relative to other places. A lack of leadership does not necessarily mean that good university environments cannot be fostered, as laissez faire approaches are often cited as a desirable thing in HE. This case just highlights a place where too little leadership (good or bad) can lead to bad results for the HE institution in question.

  4. Jamie is right and unfortunately, over the past two years change in leadership in Warwick’s professional services has lead to a drop in morale and an increasing number of staff have left. Earlier leadership would have supported the VC and never have let the situation develop the way it has.

  5. The article mentions “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” uncritically and without qualification, as though their very supposed independence might make their judgement perfect in a way the university cannot be. There are so many problems with this I cannot begin to list. The first is that their very distance from the particular culture may cause them to seriously misunderstand the situation. The second is that the positioning of the sentence seems to place their supposed independence as a defacto good, and no dialogue is entered into about who this external body is, who brings them in, what they may be paid, and what their prior allegiences may be etc etc. This is worrying, to say the least. I’d have hoped the critical and reflective thinking were seen as a necessary part of academic thinking on all levels, and on publicly available blogs even more so.

  6. Peter, I believe there are a number of reputable independent firms who are retained by universities, increasingly, to handle investigations. Initially, these have been HR related issues between staff and university, but I understand that increasingly they involve complaints between students and university. In fact, I am acquainted with a former HR Director (from a large UK university) who has successfully run his own consultancy practice for a number of years and who works within this space. My understanding is that his firm is often recommended by law firms who advise universities but who feel that investigation is more appropriate than legal action. It would certainly prove a lot cheaper for everyone and, surely, preferable to legal action if it can be avoided.

    So, this would not be a random consultant who has no understanding of the sector-specific culture that exists in universities. A reputable firm which builds its reputation on conducting successful and impartial investigations would no doubt follow very clear and transparent methodologies to ensure there is no risk of being accused of ‘prior allegiances’, I would imagine. As someone who works outside of, but close to, the HE sector, I would like to think that sometime ‘independence’ is, indeed, a very good thing.

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