TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL ASSAULT AND HARASSMENT
We would like to particularly thank Dr Anna Bull, the co-founder and director of the 1752 Group, for her help in writing this article and her commitment to tackling staff sexual misconduct.
As part of our campaign’s efforts to raise awareness of sexual violence at UK universities, we wanted to draw attention to the work of The 1752 Group. When sexual misconduct is discussed at universities, there is often a lack of focus on staff sexual misconduct. For this reason, it is particularly encouraging that The 1752 Group exists. Founded when they were PhD students, they are now a staff-led organisation founded in 2016 that follows a three-pronged approach to tackle staff sexual misconduct. Firstly, by researching this issue and providing recommendations for university guidelines. Secondly, by providing consultancy services to institutions, organisations and unions. Thirdly and more broadly, they campaign against both staff-on-student and staff-on-staff sexual misconduct by taking a multifaceted approach. Named for the amount of pounds that was allocated to the first 21rst Century conference on staff-on-student sexual harassment, it is the first of its kind to dedicate its whole attention to this pressing issue.
So, why are we writing about issues of staff misconduct if this campaign usually focuses on those perpetrated by students? University may be described as a stepping stone before heading into the real working world. Indeed, it is often advertised as a more controlled environment that prepares students for the real world. While this may be true in certain aspects, it is left to be desired in terms of sexual violence occurences. With this real world analogy in mind, what do the high proportions of sexual misconduct at universities reflect about the wider world? It is scary yet unsurprising to think that the flawed handling of these situations by universities are then mimicked in the real world. As we’ve emphasised through the campaign time and time again, sexual misconduct is a societal issue. It is not limited to universities and if members of the university community do not respect consent at their place of work or study, chances are they won’t respect it in the outside world either.
Moreover, sexual misconduct affects everyone. As outlined by the Equality Act 2010, universities have a duty of care towards their staff as well as students. As we understand it, universities are liable for staff-on-staff misconduct, but it is even more difficult to hold universities accountable for the harassment of staff by students and third parties. The Equality and Human Rights Commission wants sections 40(2)-(4) of the Equality Act 2010 to be reinstated, which may make universities “liable for student-on-staff harassment (but not for student-on-student harassment)” Although we are not legal experts, our understanding is that this law is not clear cut, and it can be difficult to understand where the onus lies on individuals and where it lies on the institutions themselves. Hence, the importance of groups like 1752 in raising awareness of the issue.
‘Having started off as student activists ourselves, we are excited to support the next generation of students who are doing essential work to hold universities to account. Making change relies on all of us working together towards making universities safer and more equal.’ (Dr Anna Bull, 2021)
In a 2018 NUS study carried out in partnership with The 1752 Group, one in eight student participants reported having been touched by a staff member in a way that made them uncomfortable. This is a particularly high statistic which demonstrates that a large proportion of students have felt uneasy about their relation with a member of staff and even so only 7.7% are reported. This issue affects all types of students regardless of age, gender, sexuality and student position; however, there are patterns in relation to these. Female students, as well as gay, queer and bisexual women and postgraduate students are found to be more affected by sexual misconduct from staff members. Sexual misconduct can take various forms including sexual harassment, assault, coercion, invitations, as well as rape, grooming and promising favours for sexual access with students.
Taking a step back, it can be seen that many actors and factors contribute to sexual misconduct being mishandled at universities. One issue is that the unequal power relations between staff and students can play a role in the lack of reporting. When experiencing sexual misconduct by a staff member, students may be less inclined to speak up as the staff may be seen as having a certain degree of control over the student’s studies. Furthermore, past instances being mismanaged can discourage others to report. According to a joint report by the NUS Women’s Campaign and The 1752 Group, most of those that report staff sexual misconduct get a negative response from their university. Within institutions, management and Human Resources practitioners can play a role in the failure of accountability by protecting the one they work for and by consequently downplaying the act. These negative patterns where the survivor felt that justice was not served or they were hushed up can lead to the deaf ear syndrome, ergo it is not seen as effort worthy to report.
To further illustrate these institutional problems, let’s examine a case where it took three years after the criminal behaviour was first raised for the university to dismiss the perpetrator, and where the perpetrator was criminally charged 13 years after the initial assault. When researching Strathclyde University for our policy analysis initiative, we came across the case of Professor Kevin O’Gorman who was found guilty of sexually assaulting seven students between 2006 and 2014 while he taught at Strathclyde University and Heriot-Watt University. The first instances, including the grooming of a 17 year-old boy, occurred when he taught at Strathclyde University. Nevertheless, the consequences of these instances only resulted in his dismissal from Strathclyde. Following this, O’Gorman took on a promoted post at Heriot-Watt where he continued to perpetrate sexual assaults. Strathclyde’s report documenting the inquiry has been widely criticised by the victims. The university did not notify them that this report would be published. Moreover, it was accused of downplaying the acts of O’Gorman and attacking the helpfulness of certain victims. As can be seen, Strathclyde University has been criticised for its lack of action and support offered to students when the sexual assault was first reported. As well as for how the university perpetrated revictimisation years after, when the offending lecturer was being trialed. An ongoing facilitation of sexual misconduct and spreading of rape culture is noteable.
In March 2020, The 1752 Group collaborated with law firm Mcallister Olivarius, who specialize in representing survivors of sexual misconduct at university. Their sector guidance contains two key principles: HEI disciplinary processes must be modified to ensure they are fair for complainants and the process must accord equal rights to complainants and respondents. In other words, keep disciplinary procedures transparent and fair. Their guidance makes for interesting reading. For instance, they argue that it is problematic for cases of staff on student sexual misconduct to go through staff disciplinary procedures. In such instances, it becomes the institution versus the perpetrator, with the student demoted to a witness role. By putting staff, to a certain extent, on trial, universities discipline employee misconduct, but deprive students of the same protections given to staff. The 1752 Group advises that students still receive these protections. According to the group, this procedure breaches the 2010 Equality Act, as most complainants are women, causing indirect discrimination. The group also advocates for the right of the accused to know the allegations against them, a procedure already in place under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. By emphasising the importance of this in their guidance, the group supports transparent and fair procedures.
When tackling sexual violence within their insitutions, universities must consider the impact of staff-on-student sexual misconduct and act accordingly. Failure to do so only ends up punishing the victims and not the perpetrators.
Click on the link below to further engage with The 1752 group and donate to help their important cause.