The recent High Court ruling that refused a former Oxford student’s attempt to compel a judicial review of Oxford University’s new harassment policy nevertheless serves as a warning to universities to get effective policies against sexual assault and sexual violence in place. This was discussed on BBC Woman’s Hour this morning, with participation of Dr Ann Olivarius, senior partner of McAllister Olivarius, and Sarah Green, acting director of EVAW.
Dr Olivarius discussed the similarities between the Oxford case and Alexander v Yale, the landmark case against Yale University in the 1980s in which she participated. Both cases were dropped because the claimants were former students who were judged to no longer have standing to bring the claims. However, Alexander v Yale established that sexual harassment of students was indeed illegal sex discrimination because it threatened women’s equal access to education. Since then, the law in US law in this area has developed to a great extent. Every university is required to have a comprehensive system to deter sexual harassment and sexual assault, including training students and faculty and disciplinary procedures that work quickly and openly. The system of compliance has its own difficulties, but is sufficiently established that President Obama has highlighted universities’ responsibilities to combat sexual assault in a series of recent speeches and regulations.
Dr Olivarius says the case of Elizabeth Ramey, the former Oxford student, may serve a similar wake-up function here. “Universities in the UK are not only educational institutions; some of them are also the homes of young people who are entering adulthood. For universities just to turn all sexual assault cases over to the police is not enough to protect students and create an environment conducive to learning. Sexual assault and sexual harassment, unfortunately, remain widespread. At McAllister Olivarius we have dealt with several cases of sexual harassment at Oxford, some involving distinguished professors. Frequently the individual colleges will point their fingers at the University as being responsible for disciplining him, and vice versa. We have contacts with many women university students too, who consider the mechanisms for dealing with sexual at best of varying quality, and at worst inadequate. I hope the new Oxford policy is able to make a difference, but there is a lot of tradition to work against,” says Dr Olivarius.