Harassment Must be Challenged

In some senses I am pleased to see increasing attention being given to the topic of sexual harassment in our universities. It would be good if such attention was unnecessary, but regrettably there is no point pretending that that is the case. Two issues this past week have brought it back centre stage in HE circles. Firstly we have seen the publication of the UUK report ‘Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students ’. Secondly there is a new breaking story – in astronomy – of alleged incidents in Liverpool John Moore’s University. I have written about harassment against women before, most recently less than a year ago in the wake of a couple of US horror stories, also in the discipline of astronomy, but there is clearly still a huge amount of work to do.

The issues break down into various different categories, but let me crudely divide them into interactions  between student and student on the one hand, and staff and either student or another staff member on the other (the term staff intending to cover any employee of whatever grade). My own university has been looking hard at the former problem and its developing policies are highlighted in the UUK report (see Annex 4). That most certainly doesn’t mean the problems are solved, but it does demonstrate that the University is taking the issue extremely seriously. As the head of a Cambridge College I am very mindful of the challenges our community face in this arena. For many years the 1994 Zellick report has, to some extent tied everyone’s (including colleges’) hands and it is encouraging to see the sector being freed to move on from this. (I am not going to get all technical about how this ruling has affected things, but you can find out more here as well as in the UUK report.).

Churchill College Students’ Union has, with the College’s encouragement and support, been running consent workshops for several years for all freshers. I am always heartened when during that first important week after arrival (male) freshers tell me what a good idea they think this is, even when, as they sometimes do, they also tell me that it told them nothing they didn’t already know and believe. Additionally the College has a robust – and published – policy to highlight that we will not tolerate any of those things that might be implied by the phrase ‘laddish culture’. That does not mean that bad behaviour does not happen, that would be too much to  hope for, but miscreants who are caught can be in no doubt that the College will deal with their offences appropriately and resolutely, thereby complying (long before it was published) with the UUK report’s recommendation vii.

I am, however, just as concerned about the second problem in which staff are involved which, as commenters on the UUK report have pointed out, is not so well-covered by it. It is at least as tricky to deal with but that does not mean we should not tackle it. Far from it. Regarding the recent LJMU astronomy case I know no more than the Daily Mail (yes, afraid so) has chosen to report. It seems to boil down to the fact that a female professor of astrophysics, then at LJMU accused another colleague of writing a reference for a staff member which did not include any reference to accusations against him of harassment. This reference enabled the staff member to move to another university before the accusations could be fully investigated, at which point they were dropped and so could neither be substantiated nor dismissed. The female professor was accused of libel by the reference-writer, but the courts have just decided to throw out the case, on the grounds there was no likelihood of conviction. (Of course there may yet be an appeal.) This episode – if not the court case – resembles one of the earlier stories I wrote about, this time arising from the University of Arizona,  where an alleged harasser’s move to a new institution was facilitated without the accusations being passed on.

What constitutes harassment? Do people feel confident about reporting it? Do they know who to report it to? And will anything be done if they do so report? These are key questions and, too often, the answer to the last three questions is ‘no’. And if people aren’t sure that what they’ve been subjected to will even be considered as harassment, they are hardly likely to seek answers to the remaining questions. If the situation in which harassment occurs also involves a power imbalance, as unfortunately is often likely to be the case (as in supervisor-student interactions), then long-term damage to an individual’s sense of self-esteem as well as their career may well result. Harassment in such cases may be verbal or involve prolonged unwanted physical contact. It can be traumatic, particularly if it occurs over an extended period.

Reporting of harassment (sexual or any other kind) is tricky. It is embarrassing. One can end up, as in domestic abuse, with believing that perhaps you ‘deserved it’, a feeling I know is hard to overcome – I wrote about a specific example of this from my own experience previously. If alcohol is involved you may think it’s best just shrugged off because perhaps the perpetrator didn’t really mean it. And sometimes you won’t even know who to report it to if it happens at a conference. I’ll illustrate this again with a specific and very personal incident which feels surprisingly recent, occurring at a time when I might have expected to be well past such a verbal attack: I must have been around 50. Pinned in a corner by a drunk professor from another country, I was told – as if it was a compliment – that he thought I was much more f***able than another woman attendee. On and on he went expanding on this idea. I clearly am too much of a wimp, brought up to be a nice girl and not make a fuss, as I didn’t slap him, and he made it impossible for me easily to escape. So I just stood there trying to say not to be so silly and to stop saying such things, until someone else began to get suspicious about my body language and came and rescued me. I kept what he said to myself (this is the first time I have ever spelled out the specifics), and tried to laugh the situation off to questioners. I certainly didn’t report it, as perhaps I should have done, to the conference organisers so that he could be banned for the future.  I do know he was given a stern talking just because it was so apparent that his behaviour had been out of line, without the details being known. (I certainly could not have seen any ready way to report his behaviour to his employer.)

The trouble is, even if one does report someone’s unsavoury behaviour, it may come out at an unacceptable cost to the complainant for zero-to-little gain. Again, my own pale experience of this has been written up previously. Many people’s experiences on all these fronts will have been infinitely worse than anything I have suffered. Trying to work out how to handle these situations fairly to all concerned is a massive challenge. Allegations are exactly that without an investigation, but it may be impossible for an investigation to discover anything because perpetrators, though often nasty pieces of work, are not necessarily stupid enough to do things in public. If actions do take place in public then bystanders can do a great deal to help – as in my example above, where I was ‘rescued’ by someone I didn’t even know very well because my discomfort was so obvious.

Universities need to face up to this challenge. Most importantly they have to create a culture where people no longer expect simply to be able to get away with it. Where laddish culture amongst the student body is stamped on by their peers. Where the sense of entitlement by powerful men to take what they want without thought of the victim they are targeting – as highlighted by Donald Trump’s behaviour – simply withers away and dies. No doubt that will require bravery on the part of the victims to speak up as well as institutional hierarchies to hear their words. I fear we are a very long way from that Utopia yet, but that is no reason for not doing all we can to get closer to it.

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9 Responses to Harassment Must be Challenged

  1. Jonathan says:

    Just for general information, the court documents for the recent libel case connected to the LJMU story are probably a clearer and definitely less sensationalised source of information than the Daily Mail article. http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/QB/2016/2533.html

  2. piscator says:

    Not sure that harassment policy is something to be proud of. When you include under harassment, with no qualification, ‘actions that are offensive to the recipient’, you chill an academic environment by allowing the subjective cry of ‘I’m offended!’ to be used to shut down heterodox or minority opinions.

    I’m sure the intentions of the policy are good. But, one of the biggest existential problems in universities is the growing level of student (and faculty) intolerance, with the use of twitter mobs, social media, etc to attack anyone who dissents from the ‘right’ opinions. And by placing so much emphasis on policing the wrong sort of speech this policy only seems to support this trend.

    • Maria says:

      @piscator: You lack a profound understanding of harassment policies at universities. I don’t think you have an understanding of how little such policies protect staff and students. First of all, harassment policies don’t include scientific opinions. Someone can easily ridicule your research and there is little you will be able to do about it. If you have a problem with people tweeting to challenge your opinion, then I guess that’s intolerance from your side as you will have to live with people who disagree with you in an academic environment. If it amounts to cyberbullying, ironically the policies you are criticising should protect you. Offensive opinions about people should not be uttered in a professional environment.

      At the moment, the person who receives the harassment complaint (head of department or someone) decides whether certain actions (e.g., intrusion into someone’s personal space) amount to harassment, giving this person the status of a not-particularly-impartial pseudo judge who tries everything to cover the ass of the university. My harassment complaint was rejected with the notion that I received an excuse from the perpetrator. These policies are useless and effectively allow the university to do and decide whatever they want. If such policies state that intrusions into someone’s personal space like touching *may* amount to harassment, then that’s pretty shocking. You simply don’t touch people at your workplace at all if they don’t like it. End of debate.

      I secretly believe that the only way to get justice is not to undergo a lengthy and painful harassment complaint procedure, but to simply damage such people back.

      • piscator says:

        @Maria: It is, in part, because I have sat on a harassment panel at a university that I care about the importance of good and careful drafting. For example, the definition could include something like ‘whether the behaviour was, taking all circumstances into account, reasonable’.

        It is not enough to say that a policy has good intentions; it matters that it is drafted well with a scope that is neither too narrow nor too broad (and the linked policy is very broad).

        Threats to speech are not hypothetical. One example (and there are many): the campaign that Germaine Greer should not be allowed to speak at a university because of her allegedly misogynist views. If she were an unknown student at Cambridge rather than a world-famous senior academic, should she be put before a disciplinary committee?

        And ‘may amount to harassment’ in a policy does seem appropriate; one of the fun things about science is the total variety of people one meets from every culture in the world. People behave in different ways, people greet each other in different ways (eg the Latin kiss) – for whether certain behaviour constitutes harassment, the details and precise circumstances do matter.

  3. Maria says:

    I am not surprised that harassment victims do not feel taken seriously although universities do not leave out an opportunity to state that they “do take such allegations seriously”.
    You allow harassment to be discarded as a cultural difference at the arbitrary judgment of an institution which will always protect the staff and not the student. If a professor wants to give cheek kisses and I don’t like that, he will have to stop it, independent of whether he is from France or not. If he is not ok with stopping it, this would be harassment. There is not only no reason why I should accept that others impose some behaviour of their culture on me, there are also cultures in which men commonly believe that “women say no because they want to be overcome” or in which it is ok to touch people on the lap. I think that university staff should be inter-culturally aware enough to stay out of other people’s personal space. If not, you need to give people adequate intercultural training before the start of the contract.
    People who complain have been damaged by such “intercultural differences”, e.g. touching. Harassment is about the effect a behaviour has on the victim and not the intention of the offender.

    The more I read from people who actually get to decide on this, the more I am getting uncomfortable with universities playing judges here. There should be an office of the independent adjudicator not only for students, but also for staff. I absolutely do not think that “may amount to harassment” is adequate. It is left deliberately fuzzy to allow universities to judge as they please. Laws against sex abuse also state clearly what counts as abuse (e.g., sexual remarks), and it does not matter whether the perpetrator simply attempted to make a joke or not. I do not see a situation in which it is adequate to intrude into other’s personal space.

    The negative reputation universities get partially stems from such excuses and I do not see how universities will get rid of their negative reputation anytime soon.

    I see that it is very well deserved, as well as I only recognise lazy attempts to follow up on allegations of harassment and this continues to be an embarrassment.

    • Maria says:

      Sorry – the above comment was meant to be a reply.

      Wrt to the comments by philosophers, ethicists etc. who, for example, make transphobic claims: there is a difference between inviting such people to speak at your institute to enable critical discussion and to hire such people. Invitations do not equal endorsement, except if you say so. You could invite Marine Le Pen to discuss until all her racist-in-disguise comments are exposed. But if you hire Marine Le Pen as a professor, you will get some problems. I was once informed that university staff acts as a representative of the university when they, e.g., touch you on the lap or makes transphobic or ableist comments towards other people. Then transphobic comments or unwanted touching – unproblematic in many cultures – represent the university. If you don’t find in favour of the complainant, it makes your institute ableist and transphobic.

      There is also a difference between making these comments outside or inside professional settings. If you are a professor and you watch child porn outside university premises, then that’s pretty embarrassing for the university and in an ideal world, the guy would be busted, but it would be difficult to fire him because it is not a disciplinary matter of the university. Universities are not pseudo courts.

      You will have to ask yourself the question whether your university feels represented by such people and their actions.
      In this case, universities should not complain about their negative reputation as it would be justified.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I am so angry that you went through that at double my current age, Professor – I thought that would be over for me by the time I get there. Luckily, it now seems I will not be an academic, at any rate.

    I realize your post is a few weeks old, but thought I would share my calling out harassment story. Sorry it’s rather long. (Both I and the perpetrator are white, she’s a domestic student and I’m not, and we work outside the UK.) There’s a person in my lab who made the most awful racist comments you could imagine, very openly, and expected me to be cool with it apparently because I’m white too. Either that, or acted friendly but secretly hoped I would be intimidated by it as an international. She would harass strangers loudly, and discriminate against people in the building, which extended into bullying another member of the lab. A number of us had talked to her about her behaviour informally. Nothing changed, so about half the lab formed a plan to make an official complaint, and ended up nominating me to be the one who made it. I did it with the initial naive goal of “helping her to see the light”, or some such. A number of the others consented to my giving their names as backup support.

    She got a talking to. Things got a LOT better, immediately. Then, after a few weeks, they got a lot worse. Interestingly, the set of people who decided with me to make the complaint suddenly decided that the responsibility was not theirs, and I think the perpetrator now knows I was part of it but they seem to have told or implied to her I was acting as a lone wolf. Many of them are still her friends(!), and are apparently too cowardly to call her out further or let anyone remember their part in it. I think the’ve purged the whole situation from their own memories for an easy time with their conscience. The perpetrator has had a fun time turning people against me and has engaged in indirect sabotage (ie: deliberately trying to delay result generation but not doing anything so bad as a direct attack on research) against me and other people in the group who won’t cow down to her. It amazes me that I call out actual overt racism, and end up getting ostracized by even the ones who supported it but wouldn’t dare make the complaint themselves. I’ve learned a lot about those people, and I don’t respect what I see.

    I hope this wouldn’t happen in the same way in the UK. Faculty closing ranks I can very much believe, but complaints between students and postdocs I don’t think would happen this way – I may be wrong. At the end of the day, I would do it again despite things turning out poorly for me, but I would be more wary of my fellow complainants in future. A number of the quieter, less socially needy lab members are still on my side at least, and I know that they are the good people here. I have a free conscience and the ones that stuck with her do not, even if they try to avoid their responsibilities.

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