Sexual harassment by university staff covered up by secret agreements

Perpetrators are able to move onto different establishments where they can offend again

University staff who sexually harass students have had their identities hidden, meaning they can be hired at other institutions and potentially reoffend. 

The use of Non Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) has allowed cases to be kept confidential, according to the Guardian. Academics, lawyers and campaigners say that this prevents sexual harassment being discussed, and its prevalence is therefore unknown.

The NDAs are created in order to protect the safety and comfort of victims. But names and information of the offenders may be kept secret, providing them with anonymity, and enabling them to reoffend more easily.

Now, action is being taken to limit these agreements and help young people speak up about their experiences.

Higher education action group, UUK (Universities United Kingdom) stated that settlement agreements were used from time to time when employees departed. They said: “The university sector has been clear that there is no place for violence and sexual harassment on a university campus, nor anywhere else.

“Universities across the UK already have a range of initiatives and policies in place to address these issues, including policies on student-staff relationships. The aim of the taskforce will be to identify best practice across a range of areas and share this with all universities.”

There have been allegations that universities are attempting to protect their own reputations in doing this, especially since the fight for the best students has become increasingly competitive.

Ann Olivarius, a leading lawyer in the area of sexual harassment in UK and US universities:

“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.

“There are very few penalties for academics who sexually harass their students; until penalties are established and made known, the problem will continue.”

Dr Alison Phipps, director of gender studies at Sussex University:

“The system comes into operation to protect itself”, she said. Problems like these “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?’

“Non-disclosure agreements are about protecting the institution and particular individuals. That’s so dangerous because if that person is serially sexually harassing students that is a public interest issue. We need to know if there are people who are serial sexual harassers in our universities.”

Ruth Lewis, coordinator of the Universities Against Gender Based Violence network and senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Northumbria:

“They [NDAs] 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.

“They don’t help address cultures which condone such behaviour, they don’t help other victims know that they are not alone, they don’t help protect potential victims.

“Gender-based violence is an urgent, worrying problem in our universities; we need to know more about it to try to end it and universities need to improve their responses to it,” she said.

The Department for Education:

“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.”

Sara Ahmed, former professor at Goldsmiths, University of London and director of the centre for feminist research at the university resigned earlier this summer as a protest against the university’s failure to address sexual harassment. She said it had become and “normalised and generalised” part of the academic culture.

She said multiple complaints had been made by female students against staff, causing some staff members to leave the establishment. Due to the confidentiality clauses, it was not known why the various members of staff had left, and they may have been able to obtain employment at other universities.

She said, “Those staff are then free to represent their departures however they wish. 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 spokesperson from Goldsmiths university said that sexual harassment is a very serious issue that the university does not ignore: “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.”

A number of postgraduates at the university have launched a campaign against the sexual harassment that keeps occurring at Goldsmiths. “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.

“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 university is allegedly looking into the possibility of sharing certain information about complaints in order “to provide reassurance that we have taken robust and fair action in the past, and to think collectively about how we can do better in the future”.

Four PhD students have set up a lobby group to tackle these issues head on. One spokesperson said: “Many institutions have inadequate policies and complaints procedures in this area, so students who experience sexual harassment from their supervisors or tutors tend to avoid making official complaints and therefore are at risk of dropping out of their studies.

“If women do make complaints, we have evidence that these are often dealt with poorly by institutions, putting complainants at risk.”

All this comes after an NUS survey showed over a third of female students had received unwanted sexual advances, yet this issue is being kept under the radar by universities.