Cambridge’s reporting procedure for sexual harassment is broken, and here’s how we can fix it
The university must implement a centralised reporting procedure to better protect students
CN: Mentions of sexual harassment and assault, discussions of reporting procedure
When it comes to reporting sexual harassment and assault, the current system in place at Cambridge is letting students down.
The system at the moment consists of a central university office, the Office of Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA), who have a team of advisors and investigators to manage any reports made. However, the system is not completely centralised, as every college also has its own procedure for reporting sexual harassment and assault, which may be following the OSCCA template, though does not have to, and can be adapted as colleges wish. The case for centralising the procedure entirely is a strong one – over 1,000 students signed an open letter calling for it almost a year ago – but a complex one.
Issues with reporting procedures at the college level
The problems of this current system were clearly highlighted in the recent case at Trinity Hall. In summary, the Acting Senior Tutor of the college at the time remained in their post following an allegation of sexual assault for over six months. During this time, they were responsible for overseeing complaints of sexual assault from students, leading to much criticism over the process. This Tortoise Media article deals in-depth with how exactly everything was mishandled at Trinity Hall, and should be read in its entirety.
Ultimately, what this case highlights is exactly why a centralised reporting procedure for sexual harassment and assault is so necessary.
Firstly, colleges are relatively small institutions, creating a world where everyone knows everyone. The university’s website takes pride in “the small-scale nature of the college community and the loyalty it inspires among its fellows”, but clearly, this also has consequences when it comes to protecting vulnerable students reporting sexual harassment or assault. The interconnected nature of college staff and long-standing friendships has the potential to impede cases and obstruct accountability.
These entanglements could be reduced through a centralised reporting process, where those in charge have a higher degree of separation from the case and the individuals involved: they work in their own office and are very unlikely to know individuals involved in a particular case.
Lack of training and resources
Research and lobby organisation, The 1752 Group, in their sector advice on how higher education institutions should deal with sexual assault, write that “investigators should be trained and independent”, which often does not happen in colleges, where college staff are anything but independent, frequently encountering conflicts of interest, and often lack the training required to handle harassment or assault cases.
This lack of training on sexual harassment and assault was admitted by the Master of Trinity Hall in 2018: ‘“We do not have either the specialist expertise in our own body, or perhaps sufficient depth of numbers, to ensure that we can adequately investigate and adjudicate the most serious allegations.” Yet, even though colleges have been open about the obstacles they face in resolving cases of sexual harassment, it is still expected that the college deals with cases of sexual misconduct, when they clearly do not have the appropriate training and resources to do so.
Even college staff who have the best intentions when dealing with these cases have not been trained in the same way as OSCCA have, and this can massively impede reporting procedures. When talking to victims about their experience, it is essential to know what to say and what not to say, in order to avoid re-traumatising them. When dealing with and making decisions about the cases and the victims, there is no room for error.
A wider systematic problem
However, whilst the situation at Trinity Hall represents the fundamental flaws of the sexual harassment procedure and the college has (rightfully) received extensive media coverage for this, these issues go beyond one member of staff, or one college. Many other colleges have similar issues, just dealt with more quietly.
This is evident in a statement from the SU: “As an SU, we hear all too often from students whose colleges have mishandled harassment complaints, with tutors unaware of the different support services that exist, or students being treated with open contempt when the college closes ranks to protect senior management, damaging the wellbeing and betraying the trust of those brave enough to come forward.”
Reporting sexual misconduct is already an incredibly difficult and traumatic experience for victims, and the fact that students are deterred from further action after being brave enough to make an initial report, is entirely unacceptable.
As well as resolving these issues, centralisation could also ensure a central recording of cases, and a solid paper trail. OSCCA keep records of all complaints, no matter the outcome, meaning they can be cross-referenced to each other, to look for common patterns and even corroborations. The 1752 Group said that such registers are necessary “to protect their students and staff from a reasonably foreseeable risk of sexual misconduct and/or to comply with their duties under the Equality Act.” Having such a paper trail is essential to hold perpetrators accountable and keep students safe.
Some people might argue that it is good that both the university and college procedures exist, as it allows victims a choice. I appreciate the value of this, and there are doubtless many reasons why a student might prefer to go through college when reporting something. However, there are issues with these college procedures which aren’t always made clear to students.
Reporting procedures, and who exactly manages them, can often be unclear. Colleges make a lot of claims and promises they ultimately will not stand by. And even if they do, students have no way of knowing what potential biases exist. Colleges are small, and staff loyalties impossible to know.
Another issue that comes up is the fact that sometimes certain cases may not fall under the university’s jurisdiction, which means the university aren’t able to deal with them. For instance, staff who are employed only by a college, and not by the university itself, would not fall under OSCCA’s remit. This means it may be necessary for colleges to be able to handle cases of sexual misconduct themselves – unless, that is, some serious restructuring takes place.
Though I have only talked about sexual harassment and assault, it is worth noting that the same procedures are used for all forms of harassment, including racial harassment; many of the same arguments apply, but this adds another layer of complexity.
The system for reporting harassment and assault is clearly broken, and poses significant stress to victims of sexual harassment and assault. A centralisation of policies for harassment and assault would remove the risk of conflicts of interest, the damage that can be caused when such cases are dealt with by non-experts, and would help create a university with a zero-tolerance culture towards sexual misconduct.
This article was written by a member of Loud and Clear, a campaign group working to address issues of sexual assault and harassment within Cambridge, as part of Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week (1st-7th February 2021).
When approached for comment, a Trinity Hall spokesperson said: “Students can report incidents [of sexual harassment] directly to the College or through the University’s centralised system. The College has robust reporting and support procedures in place and, for complaints including allegations of serious sexual misconduct, the complainant will usually be referred to the University’s Office for Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) which has been especially resourced to investigate complaints of this nature.
“The University disciplinary regulations will then be followed, rather than the College procedures. Exceptionally, if there are compelling reasons why a referral to OSCCA is not appropriate, the College may investigate the complaint itself.”
In relations to the independent inquiry mentioned in the article, they said: “We cannot comment further while the inquiry process is ongoing.”
A university spokesperson told The Tab: “The University of Cambridge has a centralised reporting system that all students can access. More information about the University reporting and support options are available at: www.studentcomplaints.admin.cam.ac.uk/reporting”