Harassment in Academia

6th June 2018

News, Student news, Alumni news

What can be done to address sexual misconduct in university settings?

  • Discussions
  • further discussions

This question of harassment in academia was addressed by feminist lawyer and philanthropist Dr Ann Olivarius at a meeting with members of Wadham’s Middle and Senior Common Rooms.

Wadham Research Associate Aro Velmet reports.

With the recent 1752 Group report documenting widespread sexual misconduct in university settings and ongoing dissatisfaction with how universities handle claims, harassment in academia is a topic of growing concern. 

At Wadham, Ann Olivarius, feminist lawyer and philanthropist who represents victims of sexual misconduct, discussed, along with Wadham historian Judy Stephenson and Women’s Studies graduate student Joana Perrone, why this problem has proven so intractable, and what can be done to remedy it.

Drawing from representative high-profile cases, Olivarius listed several reasons why cases of sexual misconduct often remain unaddressed, even in extensively documented cases. Universities want to protect their image, being aware of recruitment needs, and institutions often hide behind an air of intellectual superiority, Olivarius explained. Harassers often have compelling personalities, they make the university look good, and bring in grant funding, making it difficult to bring them to justice. Finally, even when action is taken, it often does not ’follow’ the person – cases are quietly settled, and the perpetrator continues his behavior with another generation of students or at a different university. There is not enough information or transparency for students to be aware of previous misconduct.

What are best practices to aim for? Dr. Olivarius noted that there is often a disconnect between the University’s stated policies and day to day practice. For policies to have effect, both students and staff must be aware of them. Ideally, there would be a set of standard practices that apply across the country, because it makes no sense for some universities to afford protections against sexual misconduct and others not to. Critically, there must be a firm ban on all student-staff sexual relations (currently a third of UK universities have no such policies in place). Dr. Olivarius also noted that increasingly, professional organizations are starting to reject applicants for research funding if they have been accused of harassment. Legal and financial measures can help align the interests of the university better with those of students who experience misconduct.

Wadham’s MCR and SCR members discussed the role financial incentives can have on motivating universities to investigate cases of misconduct. Members debated whether bans on student-staff relations constitute a limitation of fundamental rights, and how a rights-based defense of such bans could be mounted. Many noted the importance of framing: the prevalence of language that trivializes experiences of harassment (’that’s just John being John’), or renders the student-supervisor relationship as somehow exceptional and an environment where otherwise unacceptable conduct may be permissible.

This event was one of a series organised by Wadham's research associates.