Statement on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) at Goldsmiths
As organisers of the Sexual Harassment in Higher Education conference (SHHE) held at Goldsmiths last December, we offer this response to the statement on sexual harassment published by Goldsmiths on June 3rd 2016.
In its statement, Goldsmiths claimed that our event is evidence of the university’s commitment to addressing sexual harassment on campus. We want to clarify that we independently organised the conference. We object to Goldsmiths using our labour as evidence that it is taking action on this issue.
Our event, held on 2 December 2015, was a UK-wide conference on sexual harassment in higher education, with a focus on the sexual harassment and bullying of students by academic staff. It was a daylong event organised around keynote speakers and workshops. It worked simultaneously as an academic conference and as a practical training session. For instance, we provided training to the student union on how to handle disclosures of sexual violence.
The conference relied primarily on voluntary labour, as we are three current and former Goldsmiths PhD students. We wanted to hold it at Goldsmiths due to what we see as an acute need for these types of public conversations. We wanted to make sexual harassment visible where it had previously been invisible and to start conversations on what needs to happen to combat it.
The university in its 3 June statement has taken credit for the work we did and has not acknowledged the hundred of hours of labour of its current and former students, and the work of the Centre for Feminist Research. This work remains unseen, just as sexual harassment remains unseen. As we leave Goldsmiths, we are deeply concerned that this history will be erased, in part precisely by this appropriation of our labour, and the unwillingness of the university to acknowledge the scope of the problem. We would like to see all higher education institutions, in the UK and internationally, begin to take seriously and address the sexual misconduct and sexual harassment of students that is endemic in the sector.
There is a long history to the sexual harassment conference at Goldsmiths. There have been, as Deputy Warden of Goldsmiths Jane Powell put it, ‘cases’ at Goldsmiths. This is the first official, public acknowledgement that we have seen of this fact.
To live inside of an environment in which there are ‘cases’ is wearing. Not to have public recognition of this environment is doubly wearing. Certain members of faculty and staff, including Professor Sara Ahmed, as well as many students who remain unnamed, have therefore had to contribute the labour needed to fix this pervasive problem. There were moments of this process during which Goldsmiths administration dedicated substantial labour to these cases. However, this moment of labour on the part of Goldsmiths administration was only part of a much longer history.
For students to study in a space where cases of sexual misconduct and harassment are numerous with no public acknowledgement of this fact means they live through these experiences in institutional silence. This silence works as a form of denial: if no one says that these things are happening, it can feel as if no one is recognising that they are happening. In practical terms, harassers are emboldened, and their victims are marginalised. This silence is also effective. For example, many people, including some academic staff at Goldsmiths, are unaware of the background to the conference that we organised.
It was against this institutional silence that occurs across higher education in the UK that we decided to organise our event. We first requested that the university run an event on sexual harassment. We also approached a department to request that it be run by them, in recognition of what students had experienced within that department. The response in both cases was to the effect of: there is no need. Even if there have been cases of misconduct, there is no longer a problem at Goldsmiths.
Now, we are told again in Goldsmiths’ statement, that ‘there is no problem at Goldsmiths.’
It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution, to address sexual misconduct and harassment by Goldsmiths academic staff. This is a point on which we want to be clear: those who were in a position to be harassed by staff were those upon whom the event relied. Without them, the event for which Goldsmiths now takes credit would never have taken place.
On the day itself, very few Goldsmiths faculty and staff members attended. Most who did were affiliated with the Centre for Feminist Research. One member of the senior management team attended a session at the end of the day. While some University and College Union members attended, the current President of the UCU at Goldsmiths did not. We see this as a significant issue. We want to see UCU act as a leader on the issue of sexual harassment and it has so far failed to do this.
We had extended an invitation to the national press to attend the event. The Goldsmiths press office did help us with this. A journalist from Times Higher Education attended part of the day, and this partial event description was subsequently published.
The conference was funded partly through the Goldsmiths Students Union, partly by the Centre for Feminist Research, partly by the Centre for Cultural Studies, and partly through funding from the college’s existing equality and diversity budget. Because the money we were allocated came from the equality and diversity budget line, it meant that the overall budget for this area was reduced for the rest of the year. This in itself raises new issues. We assume that it is this financial contribution that Goldsmiths is referencing in their statement.
As we have said, we organised the event precisely in order to press Goldsmiths to recognise the extent of sexual harassment on campus and the need to reduce it. In this we feel we failed. The institution gave minimal support and paid minimal attention to the event.
One of the other ways in which we felt the day fell short was the failure, for legal reasons, to specifically name histories and events at Goldsmiths. This is recognition that is still lacking, and a failure that we continue to feel acutely.
Now we have discovered that we have failed in a new way: our event is being used to claim that there is no need at Goldsmiths for events like ours.
To the best of our knowledge, our event was the first conference in the UK to address harassment of students by academic staff. In organising it, we sought external expertise and found quickly that there is little organising and research being done on this area within higher education in the UK. Those we approached could speak about student-to-student sexual harassment, but not staff-to-student sexual harassment.
Research and development of policies and best practice in this area urgently needs to be formulated. Recent research from the US suggests that one in six female graduate students (17.7%) experience sexual harassment from an advisor or teacher. There is no research on this issue in the UK. In January we independently, along with other students and staff, wrote and submitted a paper from Goldsmiths’ Centre for Feminist Research to the Universities UK violence against women, harassment and hate crime taskforce on staff-to-student sexual harassment. We hope the taskforce will soon recommend action on this issue. There is a critical need in the UK to work on addressing sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by academic staff.
We note that Goldsmiths states in recent communications that it wants its staff and students, working together, to lead the sector in tackling harassment in all its forms and wishes to establish opportunities for further open discussion. But our experience in organising the conference on sexual harassment, after waiting for Goldsmiths to take lead, is that the university was not open to discussing this publicly or to taking the lead. Instead the work continues to fall predominantly on students and a few academic staff members.
As current and former students of Goldsmiths we want the institution to address publicly sexual harassment and sexual misconduct that has occurred, to develop detailed procedures and policy, and recognise and address the impact that harassment has on its students. There are feminist academics at Goldsmiths who continue to do amazing and courageous work in addressing these issues and they need to be supported.