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From Warwick to Cambridge, universities are letting sexual assault survivors down

The Trinity Hall scandal further exposes universities’ mishandling of sexual assault cases

CN: this article contains mention of sexual assault and rape

In the summer of Year 13, I watched the BBC documentary about the Warwick group chat scandal in horror. It revealed not only the hundreds of sickening comments made by male students about rape and sexual violence towards their female peers, but the university’s inexcusable lack of action in either punishing the offenders or helping those who were affected. 11 male students were temporarily suspended, but the university then allowed six of them to return to campus, where they made a second group chat saying, “let’s do it all again”.

In response to the group chat infamy, Warwick issued a statement acknowledging that “sexual misconduct or harassment of any kind is completely unacceptable”, and adding that “processes need to adapt to ensure they support our community better”. The full statement can be found here.

However, Warwick was my insurance university choice, and, shocked by the blatant lack of care towards the survivors and absence of punishment for the perpetrators, I decided that if I didn’t get the grades for my firm choice university, I’d take a year out and reapply.

This week, it was revealed that Trinity Hall, one of the colleges at my firm uni, Cambridge, was embroiled in three separate but interlinked cases of sexual assault allegations in 2018, by both academics and other students. And two days ago, I got an email from my faculty encouraging me to “refrain from discussing the matter with the press or on social media”.

In both cases, institutions that are responsible for the welfare of students are silencing them and prioritising the reputation of their university and their academics over the students themselves. One of the female students at Trinity Hall wrote: “The entire process was traumatic – I was patronised, gaslit and denied access to crucial information about my complaint … Trinity Hall is not interested in protecting its students, only in servicing its own reputation.

Of course, the very fact of sexual assault is awful in itself. But it is a reality for far too many people. Numbers vary, but the Office for National Statistics estimates that 20% of women and 4% of men have experienced sexual assault since the age of 16. One study shows that over half of students have experienced sexual harassment or assault. These numbers are staggering; universities need to have clear and effective structures in place which address the problem in a way that doesn’t punish the survivor for speaking out, whether the perpetrator is a student or an academic.

This isn’t new in Cambridge, either. Danielle Bradford is currently suing Cambridge over the way it handled her report of sexual harassment. The university allegedly threatened to charge her with harassment if she spoke about the incident due to the confidentiality rule, and she claims she was advised that speaking out would harm her career prospects in academia. Woman ‘A’ in one of the Trinity Hall cases describes how she never felt that her concerns were taken seriously. If the university doesn’t have adequate systems in place for dealing with sexual abuse allegations and survivors don’t feel supported, then others are deterred from reporting perpetrators, who will continue to occupy and abuse positions of authority and power.

In Cambridge, difficulties in policies about sexual misconduct are exacerbated by the collegiate structure. Colleges, largely autonomous institutions, can evade scrutiny, and it enables significant disparities in policy and support from college to college. The insular nature of college communities is one of the issues raised in the case of Trinity Hall. An academic (who himself was cleared following an investigation into sexual assault ) oversaw the disciplinary process of a case of sexual misconduct, where the accused was a pupil he had an allegedly ‘close relationship’ with.

My Year 13 self thought that a different uni would solve the problem: a different attitude from management and figures of authority. The Master of Trinity Hall, Rev Canon Dr Jeremy Morris, has now temporarily “voluntarily stepped back” whilst Dr William O’Reilly, the acting Senior Tutor, has “withdrawn from his college duties” on a “voluntary basis”.

Trinity Hall issued a statement, in which it is said that “the College has set up a panel of unconflicted Fellows to co-ordinate its response to the issues raised […] The panel will be submitting an interim report to an additional meeting of the College’s Governing Body in the week commencing 2nd March.” The full statement can be found here.

But these problems are structural and pervasive throughout academia, whether at Warwick or Trinity Hall.

All universities need to do better and have policies in place which prioritise survivors of sexual assault and hold individuals to account. Only 11 out of 60 of the largest universities in the country have specific policies in place about student sexual misconduct, and 42 out of the 60 have a time restriction on when a student can make an allegation against a member of staff, which is 10 working days at its shortest.

This does not account for the traumatic nature not only of the experience itself, but also how difficult it is to speak about and report sexual assault. This is often made worse by not being believed when speaking out, or a lack of consequences for the perpetrator, creating a vicious cycle of inaction and underreporting, at the expense of the students’ welfare and safety.

Cambridge and other universities need to look at the ways in which survivors of sexual assault are treated, and ask themselves if their policies prioritise student welfare. They owe it to those affected by their unacceptable mismanagement to enforce change.

In response to the allegations of sexual misconduct at Trinity Hall, the College and its Master issued a joint statement, saying: “We understand that any allegations of this kind at our College will be a matter of deep concern to everyone in our community, and we take them extremely seriously.

“There is no place for misconduct or inappropriate behaviour of any kind at Trinity Hall, and we are highly aware how important it is to deal with any issues which may arise in a clear and appropriate manner. The safety and welfare of students and staff at the College is a priority for us, and a natural expectation of anyone who comes to study and work here.”

The rest of the statement can be found here.

Photos are author’s own