Sally Weale and David Batty:
Harassment of students is widespread but remains invisible, partly because of confidentiality clauses, say campaigners
Universities’ use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) in sexual harassment cases involving staff and students is allowing alleged perpetrators to move to other institutions where they could offend again, according to academics, lawyers and campaigners.
They warn that the prevalence of harassment is being masked because of the use of confidentiality clauses in settlements, which prevent any of the parties discussing what has happened.
Universities that find themselves at the centre of sexual harassment allegations are accused of prioritising their own reputations in an increasingly competitive higher education marketplace over their duty of care to vulnerable students. Those who described concerns include:
Ann Olivarius, a leading lawyer in the area of sexual harassment in UK and US universities, who said: “Young women are terrified about the consequences if they make a complaint, then when they do, the university’s chief concern is to protect its own reputation by keeping the whole thing quiet.”
Dr Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University, who said her research had taken her into 10-15 universities and it was the same story every time. “The system comes into operation to protect itself.” Universities are operating like businesses, she said, and these types of problems “are thought of in terms of the economic cost, of reputation management, and: ‘What happens if we lose our star professor and his grant income?'”
Ruth Lewis, coordinator of the Universities Against Gender Based Violence network and senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Northumbria, who raised concerns that NDAs were concealing the true extent of the problem of harassment and violence in UK universities. “They make it very difficult to know how often complaints about harassment or violence from staff or from students are resolved by a private settlement that makes the problem invisible.”
Universities UK (UUK), the higher education action group, said there were no statistics on the use of NDAs, but with more than 400,000 employees, a spokesperson said it was likely that settlement agreements were used from time to time when employees departed.
The Department for Education, asked about the prevalence of sexual harassment of students by university staff, and the danger that NDAs were keeping the problem hidden, said: “Sexual harassment is unacceptable and universities’ responsibilities to their students are crystal clear. They must have clear policies in place for the handling of such complaints and ensure students do not face harassment of any kind.
“If a student is unhappy with how a complaint has been dealt with they can speak to the Office of the Independent Adjudicator. Ultimately, if a student feels they have been the victim of a sexual assault they should report it to the police.”
But Olivarius, who is working on a number of allegations of sexual harassment against senior academic staff in the US as well as cases in the UK, said there was no effective mechanism at universities to stop academic staff pressuring students for sexual relationships and any kind of disciplinary action was extremely rare. “There are very few penalties for academics who sexually harass their students; until penalties are established and made known, the problem will continue.”
The issue of NDAs is at the centre of a recent case of sexual harassment highlighted by Prof Sara Ahmed, who resigned from her post at Goldsmiths, University of London, earlier this summer in protest against what she described as the university’s failure to address sexual harassment. It had become, she said, a “normalised and generalised” part of the academic culture.
Speaking for the first time since her resignation, Ahmed, former director of the centre for feminist research at Goldsmiths, said there had been a number of complaints by female students which resulted in some staff leaving. However, because of the use of confidentiality agreements no one was told why or how they came to leave.
“Those staff are then free to represent their departures however they wish,” Ahmed said. “Confidentiality agreements are not necessarily used intentionally to silence students who have been harassed by staff or the staff who support them. But that is the effect. If no one speaks about the cases then no one speaks about what the cases revealed.”
A Goldsmiths spokesperson said sexual harassment was a very serious issue and was not tolerated at the university, adding: “It is sadly pervasive across society – and like many other organisations we have not been immune from the issue.
“We have confirmed that there has been inappropriate behaviour at the university in the past. Any allegations of sexual harassment are thoroughly investigated with action taken against those found responsible.”
The Guardian has been given the names of a number of men who were allegedly the subject of inquiries at Goldsmiths between 2013 and 2014 following complaints from students about harassment and sexual misconduct. Settlements were reached and some staff left the university, but much of the detail cannot be reported because parties involved signed a confidentiality clause.
In recent weeks, however, a group of mainly postgraduate students from Goldsmiths have launched a campaign to try to flush out the truth about what happened at the university to prompt Ahmed’s resignation.
“We feel hugely resentful that she is no longer teaching at Goldsmiths and are frustrated at the lack of information around precisely what she is protesting against,” a spokesperson for the group told the Guardian.
The students want to know if any of the members of staff at the centre of the allegations are still at Goldsmiths and, if they have left, whether other institutions are aware of the claims against them.
“It is not only to the detriment of Goldsmiths students and staff, but to other students and staff all around the world that severe cases of sexual harassment over several years have been buried,” the spokesperson said.
It has also emerged that a number of books in the university library have been defaced, with handwritten allegations of sexual harassment against the author – a former Goldsmiths academic – scrawled across the title page. The university has since removed the books from the library shelves.