Institutional Failings

Institutional Failings:  The management of sexual harassment within higher education

Tiffany Page

I came to Goldsmiths as a PhD student in 2011 and it feels like this is where this event began, in meeting students in a variety of settings, and in realising the extent to which having to negotiate sexual harassment was the reality for so many, especially at postgraduate levels, which is the context in which I’ve become most familiar.

Students provide many forms of front line support services within their own departments and wider communities at Goldsmiths and I’m sure this is the case in other institutions. For many of us, we’re self-taught and we’ve had valuable training from feminist academics involved in the Centre for Feminist Research, which has become, as we like to say, a kind of spiritual homeland for feminists within the university. We’ve become knowledgeable in employment and libel laws, in complaints processes, in writing in ways that document and detail, in exposing ourselves in ways that don’t strip us raw but don’t shy away from saying what is difficult to express, in seeing others struggling and knowing that at times we ourselves are the best support. As I come close to finishing my PhD, I’m concerned at how this knowledge is not shared in ways that are more permanent, in how there needs to be lasting structures in place that address harassment, that call attention to it, that involve networks that track its movement, for there is movement of harassment from one institution to another.

The labour and emotional energy that goes into addressing issues of sexual harassment needs to be acknowledged, and it often falls to very few, a handful of academic staff, and on the ground through student networks and advocacy. This event marks a space where we want to talk about many of these hidden elements, the unseen labour, the disappearance of harassment, and these are hard conversations to have. They are especially hard with the fear of legal action, and with the need for people to protect themselves. We might be talking in broad brushstrokes, but it is important to be clear, universities have a sexual harassment problem.

Today we want to focus on not only how to respond to sexual harassment and how difficult it can be to make a complaint or to know how to complain, but why and how it happens in institutions, and how it is perpetuated. What are the ways that students’ testimonies are marginalized and dismissed? What are the ways that power operates to mean that certain students will never make a complaint? What are the numbers of students really, actually, that interrupt, leave, fail to complete their studies each year because they have been subjected to sexual harassment by academic staff?

We also want to think about the ways sexual harassment is addressed within policies and procedures, and the ways that white, cis-gendered experiences are often centred and re-centred in discussions of sexual harassment. In drawing upon Heidi Mirza, there is work to be done in how we articulate sexual harassment, both in what it is and what it does, but also in how we do the work to discuss the dynamic differences and tensions in the ways it is experienced. There are differences in how sexual harassment impacts students who are not white or cis-gendered or straight, who are Black, Asian and from other global majority populations, who are trans* or non-binary and who are queer, who may find it more difficult to be listened to, who do not find the support on campus that they need, and we want the space to talk about this today. These differentiating experiences, that might be compounded by racism or transphobia in both the experience of harassment and after in making a complaint, or in the ways that complaint is managed and responded to, and in its outcomes, need to be addressed by institutions, in the policies and procedures that are developed, and in the specialist services that must be available to support students.

I want to talk briefly about the ways that sexual harassment, as a particular exercise of power connected to both institutions and individuals, has mobility and becomes concealed through its movement. I think that it is critical that our analysis should include focusing on the ways that institutions work, on their failings, on the means in which they protect and conceal, and how problems get passed silently from one organisation to another.

One of the ways that institutions manage sexual harassment is to individualise the problem. A complaint is made about an individual, not a department, and not a culture. When sexual harassment is formally recognised, the institution treats the problem as a problem of an individual aggressor. This is often built into the structure of the complaints process. However, it can be difficult to locate the source of the problem as a single individual. In order for this harassment to circulate and remain in place, any number of other individuals must enable and tolerate it, and therefore be complicit in producing and sustaining an environment that accepts this behaviour. From the stories we have worked with and seen on blogs and websites, other members of that department, and that institution, know that sexual harassment is going on. They respond in many ways: by ignoring it, by not taking student complaints or rumours circulating within departments seriously, by distancing themselves from the individual staff member, and by acting as gatekeepers, distancing themselves from students that may be trying to change departments, refusing to help them, not asking questions as to why the student wants to change supervisors, or swap their major.

The refusal of institutional structures to recognise the role that these institutional cultures play in maintaining environments that condone sexual harassment is a means of denying responsibility. This is a method by which responsibility for sexual harassment shifts and the problem of sexual harassment is made to disappear. By treating a reported incident of sexual harassment as a singular, one-off event, by single member of staff, the university can maintain its reputation, and minimize the work involved: it is not the institution that is at fault, is this individual.

The recent case at the University of Colorado Boulder is an example of this. Here, when sexual harassment became known publicly, it was claimed despite the enduring and insidious nature of the harassment occurring within the Philosophy Dept, the presence of the problem was overstated. The university was successfully continuing to deal with cases,  “on an individual, case-by-case basis, and normally that’s enough.” There is so much happening in this sentence. This was the institutional language used, even when there were least 15 separate complaints on file, and a significant number of people who had witnessed or been subjected to harassment and sexualized behaviour. Here it is possible to see how the university as a regulating authority controls the flow of information, determines what abusive behaviour will be tolerated, irrespective of policy, and directs cases of harassment to be treated as an individual irregularity or as a form of pathology. What if after the second case of harassment that an investigation had been launched? What if student enrolment had been suspended while that investigation took place? I want to note at this point that an investigation is always vulnerable to what it sets out to find. When an institution does not want to unearth abusive behaviour, the parameters set, the persons interviewed, the person who conducts the interviewing, the questions asked, and the weight given to student testimony, are all used to conceal and make the harassment disappear. Academic staff are moved sideways, students are not informed of the outcomes, and the institution effectively seals itself closed.

One method of disrupting this model of the “case-by-case” approach, and investigations that start with determined outcomes, is to begin by framing the analysis of sexual harassment with the institution at the centre. As well as holding the individual to account for sexual harassment, the context and conditions in which such practices occur become equally important, and become an essential part of the work in uncovering sexual harassment and addressing it. Change in institutions cannot occur until sexual harassment is no longer understood solely as a discrete, irregular or unusual event that can be controlled by workplace policies. Instead of the problem being associated with an employee, the problem becomes understood as one more centrally located in the organisation itself.

I want to make a final comment about the use of confidentiality by universities who are dealing with sexual harassment cases. While this is supposed to protect students, it also protects the staff member accused of harassment from ever being accountable for their behaviour outside of that singular institution. Confidentiality clauses protect the institution’s reputation and they protect the academic’s reputation. Academics are free to resign during disciplinary proceedings, and free to create the narrative of their choice – “my politics were too radical” is one that you might find used.

One of the reasons why we are holding this conference is because the problem of sexual harassment doesn’t end when the academic is excised; this is not the end to the problem and the end to the work of institutions and senior management teams. When an academic who sexually harasses students resigns or leaves an institution, the problem is not solved, it simply is another means in which sexual harassment disappears from view. The person left with the problem is the student. The student is expected to continue with their studies, within the same department and institution where sexual harassment occurred, and seldom with any means of articulating their experience. Meanwhile the academic moves on to a new institution, and students at that university have no knowledge of the abusive behaviour of their new supervisor, their new lecturer.