Why do we forget that university staff also harass students?

Dr Ann Olivarius, Senior Partner, McAllister Olivarius

I welcome today’s report on changing the culture of violence against women at universities from the UUK taskforce. It’s sorely needed. Getting an education should not mean putting up with being grabbed, groped or even raped by your fellow students.

But as well-intentioned as the report is in protecting students, it has one big, glaring omission: Staff-student harassment. It’s hardly mentioned and not given near enough attention, considering the scope and severity of the problem. Faculty members can also represent a danger to university students, and arguably a more insidious one because of the starkly unequal power dynamic. When staff harass, students fear not only for their safety, but also for their continued education, for their future professional reputation, for recommendations and for opportunities to be denied them.

According to research from the US, 15.8 % of students have experienced sexual harassment by their professors or other university staff. How many British students have been groped, propositioned, raped or made to feel uncomfortable by their superiors? Sadly, we don’t know, because the last time anyone did any research on this issue was in 1998. Compounding the problem, students who do make a complaint, are often bound to silence afterwards by non-disclosure agreements as part of any settlement with the university. Victims can’t share their stories and educate others, and perpetrators are kept anonymous, free to continue teaching and harassing or be hired elsewhere, with no stain on their record.

The tide may be turning. The public is learning what too many British university students have until now been forced to keep to themselves: In a gripping and upsetting series this year The Guardian told the stories of students’ harassmentby the very professors who were supposed to teach them, and how their universities let them down when they complained.

I’m an advisor to Group 1752, an advocacy group formed after the scandals of sexual assault by staff that rocked Goldsmith’s this year. We do work in this area on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the US, the law known as Title IX,establishes a binding code of conduct on universities on this issue. A university can be sued if it didn’t do enough to protect the student from harassment or assault and didn’t have clear and efficient procedures in place to deal with the complaint.  It can even have its federal funding cut off.  Title IX also ensures, among other things, that the victim of harassment won’t have to share classroom, office or other space with the harasser while the complaint is processed, and each school has a designated Title IX Coordinator to help and guide students.   This law is not perfect, but it is valuable to women who are harassed, and in deterring further harassment.

We have nothing even close to that in the UK. On the contrary, British students are left in a vulnerable position if they are harassed by their professors, and graduate students even more so.  Because of the close one-on-one relationships they form with advisors, they often end up having to report the abuse to a colleague of the harasser; whose loyalties can be divided and whose incentives to discipline a perhaps prestigious and fund-generating colleague are few. Students have no neutral, outside expertise to guide them through the Kafkaesque complaints procedure and often they are not assigned a new professor while their complaint is processed, thus frustrating their education. There simply exists no proper mechanism to protect students whose professors won’t back off.

We know it’s possible to empower students, to protect them and to hold universities accountable. The only question is: What are we waiting for?