Universities have still not had their #metoo moment

A shocking new report lifts the lid on harassment and sexual misconduct at a university's school of architecture. Jim Dickinson considers the implications

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Given I’ve been reading, writing and thinking about harassment and sexual misconduct in the sector for over a quarter of a century, I worry sometimes that I’ve become numb to some of the stories that appear from time to time in reports, inquiries and interviews with victims.

But even so, and do consider this is a trigger warning, large parts of the testimony contained within a newly published investigation report on the school of architecture at UCL are viscerally shocking – detailing bullying, racism, microaggressions, gaslighting, toxic learning and teaching culture, low psychological safety and the significant emotional impact that those experiences have had on those involved.

The themes we’ve heard before, both in wider society and in higher education – “uncomfortable truths” and “open secrets” about the Bartlett School of Architecture; abuses of power; protectionism; a “boys’ club” culture that facilitated a lack of accountability; and a fear of speaking out “woven into the fabric of the BSA for a long period of time”.

But I think it is the way in which the 45 pages of evidence in the “themes” section – in and of itself a pretty tight summary – paints the kind of institutional picture that individual incidents or accounts never could that is most disturbing. It’s a tough but I think essential read for almost everyone working in higher education – here I’ve tried to pull out some of the key lessons and potential implications for the rest of the sector.

Background

To cut a long story short, back in May 2021 the Guardian reported that 21 former students had complained of sexism and racism at the UCL Bartlett School of Architecture going back a decade – making a series of allegations of inappropriate comments surrounding race and including accounts of female students sometimes brought to tears.

At the time the university said it had been “aware of issues” in the school and was working to address them, launching an investigation into the student complaints. But it now appears that the dossier that triggered the external investigation – the report from which is now published – was only the tip of the iceberg.

One interesting thing to note is that the dossier should not have come as a complete surprise. The Guardian report said that in 2007 an investigation by the university’s EDI team identified issues with women being given different marks than men:

The team subsequently monitored teaching and concluded female students were being treated differently. The institution worked to address this, making improvements in recent years, but did not contact Bartlett alumni to inform them.

Meanwhile in 2017 feedback about not feeling respected and supported were identified in a university-wide staff survey that highlighted five areas of concern, including a lack of recognition or respect for work delivered by professional services staff, uneven workload distribution, poor listening skills by senior staff and a culture of communication that was at times rude or aggressive – as well as a belief that some senior staff appeared to operate within “cliques” which resulted in apparent “favouritism, secrecy and a lack of openness in decision making, and/or work allocation”.

A 2017 review published the findings, with the school responding to state that “strong actions were taken and [remain] ongoing” to address the issues, including “a number of actions to improve awareness on expected behaviours and being respectful to others” and, more recently, “rolling out ‘Where do you draw the line?’ training, along with increasing awareness of dignity advisors.”

What didn’t happen at that stage, however, was any particular read across to the behaviours identified impacting or involving students – and so four years later it was the student dossier that triggered the wider external process involving “people intelligence company” Howlett Brown.

There is detail on the extensive process adopted by the firm in the report – but it’s important to say that it is clear that the existence of a publicly announced external investigation appeared to give confidence to a number of additional witnesses and victims to come forward to share their accounts.

Contextual factors

In the report, investigators take care to construct a helpful and detailed understanding of the history and culture of the school, as well as some of the context of architecture as a profession – which helps in part to explain the conditions in which the behaviours that were found developed and went unchallenged. What I would say about that is that while some of the material is clearly unique to architecture and the BSA specifically, so much of it could just as easily be any number of parts of the higher education sector more generally. Frankly, there are pockets of provision that resemble the BSA almost everywhere.

Through the process, the authors first make clear that they were made aware of “very concerning” and “serious” allegations involving a small group of staff who were cited in multiple accounts. The alleged misconduct of one particular senior staff member was flagged to them in 24 examples that suggested the staff member “frequently deceived students about their academic progress”, “mocked and demeaned students during Crits” (a type of in-person assessment), made sexist comments, verbally attacked female students and accused victims of bullying who spoke up about this staff member’s behaviour.

A senior leader was highlighted in 27 participant accounts that alleged serious misconduct involving bullying, misogynistic and antisemitic behaviour. They were alleged to have created a “boys club” where they were able to protect other members of staff from the consequences of their conduct, through actions such as deleting complaints, and normalising bad behaviour.

The investigation was informed of 9 examples and incidents involving a particular senior tutor whose behaviour was alleged to include bullying, sexist and racist remarks directed particularly towards Chinese students, physical violence in the form of throwing materials at and near students and forcing students to work on their own projects. One tutor, described by a participant as controlling and manipulative, is alleged to have bullied and targeted students during Crits, demeaned students about their work by ripping up their drawings, and made micro aggressive remarks. A senior faculty tutor allegedly failed to appropriately handle complaints through inaction, lack of confidentiality and by making excuses for those complained or “gaslit” complainants to believe they were at fault.

Participants also shared allegations of tutors who allegedly had parties and invited students, some of which allegedly involved drug taking and cocaine; at least 5 tutors that were alleged to have “dated” students; two incidents where a particular staff member allegedly failed to take appropriate action about complaints and instead victim-blamed complainants who were trying to speak up; three accounts regarding a senior tutor’s alleged verbal and physical abuse towards students involving pushing, taunting students about their work and capability, and inappropriate touching; and a long tail of other allegations where staff at different levels of seniority perpetrated bullying, sexism and sexual harassment.

In response, UCL has announced that it has removed a number of staff of the BSA from student-facing and administrative duties with immediate effect while it carries out further formal investigations.

Open secrets

The thing about the allegations, though, isn’t so much the “sum of the parts” aspect to the patterns of behaviour identified – it’s also the “varying degree of complacency” among other staff members who “appear to have been complicit” through inaction and “allowed the culture and alleged misconduct if founded, to continue and perpetuate… for some time.”

The report says that that is partly resultant of a culture of fear, favouritism, and fear of speaking up by staff and students – and limited oversight, accountability, or action:

…the structural and procedural aspects of BSA culture, together with a small group of staff, are the central cause for many of the issues identified, and the troubling experiences endured by students and staff identified in this Report. This has had the purpose and effect of creating a toxic and in parts, unsafe learning and working environment, where people have felt silenced, and in several instances deeply traumatised by their experiences.”

The “systemic and structural” issues are where we ought to think critically and urgently about where we think similar issues might be present across the sector.

For example, the report finds that an academic approach of “units” created siloes that rested on, in some cases, the creative ambitions of certain tutors – some of whom also have full time, successful careers in the industry. That unit structure then drove an inconsistent approach to teaching, including the inconsistent use and practice of Crits as a method of assessment – partly because the most popular and perceived successful tutors had the greatest power and autonomy when teaching. Add in a lack of oversight and you get a “systemic root cause” of some of the experiences – a “breeding ground” for inequity and abuse of power.

Plenty of parts of the sector should ask questions of the structures we see that are characterised by some of “the talent” having power or popularity or the ability to bring in funding that should cause concern in this light.

Unreported and unsupported

Why didn’t people raise concerns earlier? A familiar picture emerges here – where staff and students were unaware of central services or processes, or displayed a reluctance to use them for lack of trust in the confidentiality and impartiality of those systems:

People at the Bartlett said that they knew each other very well [so] I felt like [I] couldn’t speak to get the support.” There are also accounts of a raft of microaggressions, and those handling disclosures described as inexperienced staff members who either responded inappropriately or did “nothing to change the outcome of the event”.

There’s a particularly important section on staff-student relationships which my colleague Sunday Blake, who has written extensively on the subject, will recognise. Like many others, UCL’s policy prohibits a relationship where a staff member has direct or indirect “authority” over a student, but here the authors argue that the policy does not address the impact of students being exposed to staff members who may be the perpetrators of bad behaviour who may not have supervision over a student, yet may still represent an inherent power imbalance.

There is important wider material on abuse of power. The policy definition of “abuse of power” at the university “remains limited in scope” in that it fails to address the fact that abuse of power can also include “taking advantage of uneven bargaining powers or withholding access, resources or opportunities.” Examples given include student tutors who would ask their students to work free of charge for them over the summer holidays or refused to engage with a student who challenged the bad practices that they were subjected to, partly because:

…in tutor and student dynamic, or in a position where there is a differential balance in power, consent is unlikely to be given freely or without influence or pressure. Additionally, with the experiences shared by participants we find that it would be impossible for the BSA to find that consent would be given freely in an environment where behaviours and conduct noted above, have been woven into the culture at the BSA and its teaching practices. “

Crucially, given the international prominence of the BSA, participants felt as though they had to:

…accept the treatment they endured through fear of the consequences to their careers, and that those who were favoured in such a prestigious environment were inoculated from consequence, allowing them to act as they pleased.

It happens here

The recommendations are extensive and detailed – albeit sat within the assumptions and paradigms of the way UK HE currently works, and focussed on the BSA – and so therefore potentially won’t quite address everything detailed.

For what are probably obvious reasons, the “unit” based academic structure is slated for major structural reform, with some standardisation that would cause plenty in the sector to wince. There are helpful recommendations concerning the hiring of staff, and changes to the use of “crits” as assessments. There’s the sort of stuff you would expect to see on strengthening, clarifying and communicating policies, support and procedures where someone experiences or identifies potential misconduct. And there are suggestions on widespread training – where the “mandatory” is only likely to be accepted and acted on now that a crisis of this size and shape has manifested.

It’s certainly hard to disagree with any of the recommendations. But several things do strike me.

I do hear a lot – and I understand why – a theory that marketisation and the “sale” of higher education is a cause of this type of issue and a reason for the reluctance on the part of universities to address issues. I have some sympathy with the idea. But it seems to me that the characteristics of the environment portrayed here are less about the market per se and more about cultures that surround professional elites in general. Reputation does matter when you’re trying to get funding or compete for students – but it matters to the powerful regardless of those things, and always has. This is much deeper than the funding system.

One of the side issues that the report highlights is the one I was talking on the site with the CEO at Beds SU a few weeks back – which is that the idea, being promoted by Michelle Donelan and Universities UK, that NDAs should be banned but only in cases of sexual miscodnuct. This report reminds us that sexual misconduct is a version of abuse of power – a serious and egregious one at that – but it’s the abuse of power, in an incident (or pattern thereof) or in the causing of a victim to sign, that is the thing we should tackle. I’m more sure than ever reading this that NDAs (including “confidentiality agreements” that pretend not to be NDAs) should be banned full stop.

Not all men

I’m struck by the characteristics of this “pocket” of UCL partly because I see so many other pockets. Back when I was an SU CEO I would, from time to time, be met with daggers when I suggested that misconduct prevention work needed to be focussed on the parts of the student body most likely to perpetuate – medics, elite sports clubs, departments with small numbers of PGRs, and so on. But we have to get past the idea that there’s a blanket approach here of an “It happens here” poster and a Report + Support tool that just needs broadcast advertising. It’s obvious that some parts of some universities are likely to have been harbouring abuse. The faster we target them for interventions the less likely it will continue.

There’s something very interesting in this case – both about the staff-student relationship issue and the “not trusting reporting systems” issue – that for me is about the “separation” we try to achieve between processes involving the “centre” and processes involving a department or school or whatever. Increasingly it’s clear that those things are only really possible in massive universities, and even then don’t have credibility for potential complainants because victims will assume that the university protects its most powerful people. If we want to deal with this issue properly, sort the “small and specialist” (including Oxbridge college) issue, and stop serial abusers from moving around universities with impunity, staff should need a licence to practise, and students should be able to make complaints to an obviously and visibly external body. I wrote about that on the site last year.

I am struck by the way in which the factors surrounding the academic subject and industry were important here – and the fact that the teaching and learning structures, quality monitoring and assessment traditions all were contributors. The Office for Students’ statement of expectations is miles away from getting at those kinds of issues, pretty silent on abuse of power as an overarching theme, and ironically for OfS, is generally is weak on the need to take a risk-based approach to prevention. And crucially, and significantly problematically, it looks to me like UCL would have been “compliant” with the standards in the statement five years ago, but that wouldn’t have prevented the problems identified here. And if that’s the case, what’s the point?

But my other thought here is about the “open secrets” and climate thing. There are people in the sector that know where there are other BSAs. And even where there are not, there are those experiencing patterns of abuses of power that shouldn’t be. Almost no university has been brave enough to launch its own “climate” survey on this kind of issue, no university to my knowledge has initiated an open call for historical or current accounts of abuse, and few universities act on their “open secrets” unless and until something concrete comes in. And OfS continues to refuse even to countenance the collection of complaints stats, let alone organise a national climate study that might tell us where to look.

The sector has not, in other words, had what the BSA has now had – an actual #metoo moment. It needs one.

2 responses to “Universities have still not had their #metoo moment

  1. This needs to be sent to every registrar, VC, and head of HR in all our HEIs!! So much goes on under their watch, that the abdicate responsibility for. #meetoo in unis can’t come soon enough.

  2. There are undoubtedly other examples in that part of HE (one was even covered by the Guardian in the Spring). Sexism and racism are the sharp end of the wedge, but the broader issues of individual personalities creating environments of fear, threats to staff and students for not playing the right game… these issues are also hugely at play. At least the Bartlett has such a strong reputation that people may feel freer to report issues – in smaller/newer organisations, the feeling can be that calling out abuses at the top will show it them to be unstable/disreputable organisations, where their reputation rests on those at the top. How do we help them?

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