Research update: staff sexual misconduct articles

The four articles outlined below give you an overview of my peer-reviewed research on staff sexual harassment in UK higher education, mostly co-authored with Tiffany Page.

The articles all report on data from the same study, originally summarised in the public report ‘Silencing Students: Institutional Responses to Staff Sexual Misconduct in Higher Education’. The data drawn on for the report and these articles is interviews with 15 students and 1 early career academic in UK higher education who had reported or attempted to report sexual harassment/violence from a member of academic staff to their university or the police. Interviews were carried out in early 2018. This is important to note as many universities have been making changes to their processes since then, and so the findings in the fourth article may need to be updated drawing on ongoing data collection I am doing, along with Erin Shannon, for the ESRC-funded research project Higher Education After MeToo (currently underway).

The articles cover (1) ‘grooming’ and boundary-blurring behaviours 2) why people report staff sexual misconduct to their universities (3) an overview of our recommendations for changes to complaints and disciplinary processes, and (4) what happens at the end of the complaints process. Read on for a summary of each. As always, if you don’t have access and there isn’t a pre-publication version here, email me anna.bull@york.ac.uk for a copy.

1. Bull, A., Page, T., 2021. Students’ accounts of grooming and boundary-blurring behaviours by academic staff in UK higher education. Gender and Education 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1080/09540253.2021.1884199

This article outlined ‘grooming’ and ‘boundary-blurring’ behaviours that eight of the 16 students described. It theorises boundary-blurring: behaviours as behaviours that ‘transgress (often tacit) professional boundaries’ and grooming as ‘a pattern of these behaviours over time between people in positions of unequal power that may lead to an abuse of power’. In UK law, ‘grooming’ as a criminal offence can only occur between an adult and a child. However, some interviewees used the term ‘grooming’ to describe their experiences and therefore the authors argue that this term is helpful to understand how power relations work in higher education.

One student who used the term ‘grooming’ to describe her experiences was ‘Andrea’ (all names have been changed). In her words:

“From an outsider[‘s perspective], I was saying ‘yes’ to doing certain things with him, which, for all intents and purposes, would have counted as consent, but what you don’t see is the internal conflict and the invisible power structure where he could make me say ‘yes’. […] He knew the right thing to ask and how to ask it in the right way in which it was pretty much impossible… I felt it was impossible for me to say ‘no’.” – Andrea, Master’s student

The article analyses the power imbalances interviewees described that created the context for these behaviours. These were constituted by social inequalities including gender, class, and age, as well as stemming from students’ position within their institutions. The article also explores how heterosexualised normativity allows such behaviours to be minimised and invisibilised.

2: Bull, A., 2021. Catalysts and rationales for reporting staff sexual misconduct to UK higher education institutions. Journal of Gender-Based Violence

https://doi.org/10.1332/239868021X16270572218631

Against previous literature on sexual harassment that focuses on why women don’t report their experiences, this article focuses on why women did report. It breaks down the descriptions interviewees gave of their reporting into two aspects: catalysts and rationales. Rationales were the fundamental, underlying reason interviewees gave for reporting, and usually involved a deeply considered decision. The main rationales that interviewees gave for reporting were:

  • To prevent other women being targeted
  • To protect themselves physically or emotionally
  • ‘Doing the right thing’; fighting injustice
  • To be able to continue their careers

Distinct from these underlying rationales, catalysts for reporting describe specific triggers that affected the timing of reporting. These included:

  • A change in situation, such as the interviewee leaving the institution or becoming pregnant
  • Finding out that others had also been targeted by the same perpetrator and reporting as a group
  • Being validated by someone within the institution that what they had experienced was not ok.

In some instances, catalysts overlapped with rationales, such as when an escalation in the misconduct meant that an interviewee needed to report to protect themselves or others, or where the misconduct led to an immediate barrier to continuing their career. Separating catalysts and rationales for reporting can allow different levels of decision-making over time to become clearer, against understanding reporting as a single, time-limited decision. This can help institutions to devise policies that support increased reporting.

3. Bull, A., Calvert-Lee, G., Page, T., 2020. Discrimination in the complaints process: introducing the sector guidance to address staff sexual misconduct in UK higher education. Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/13603108.2020.1823512

This article introduces our Sector Guidance to Address Staff Sexual Misconduct in UK Higher Education, available here. The problem that the guidance seeks to address is that existing UK student complaints and staff disciplinary procedures fail to offer similar protections and privileges to the student complainant and the responding staff member and, as a result, students are often excluded from the process purporting to resolve their complaint. We outline the changes that would need to be made to staff disciplinary processes to follow a process more akin to civil justice than criminal justice, thus ensuring that the process accords equal rights to complainants and respondents. The article highlights points of discussion that came up in the consultation process to devise the guidance, including sharing outcomes with complainants, recording data on disclosures as well as formal reports, and proactive investigations in the absence of formal reports. Overall, as we note:

“In a society where vastly more sexual misconduct complaints are made by women against men than vice versa, a process for investigating sexual misconduct complaints which gives those responding more rights than those complaining might well be thought to place women as a group at a particular disadvantage and so to amount to indirect discrimination, in breach of the Equality Act 2010” (p.3).

4. Bull, A., Page, T., 2021. The Governance of Complaints in UK Higher Education: Critically Examining ‘Remedies’ for Staff Sexual Misconduct. Social & Legal Studies. https://doi.org/10.1177/09646639211002243

Complaints processes and their governance in UK higher education (HE) have received little critical scrutiny, despite their expanded role under the increasing marketisation of HE. This article draws on interviews with students who attempted to make complaints of staff sexual misconduct to their HE institution. As can be seen in the descriptions below, most interviewees could not access the services of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator for Higher Education in England (OIA) as they could not complete their internal institutional complaints processes – a requirement for accessing the OIA’s services. It outlines four groups among the interviewees according to the ‘remedy’ that they obtained:

  • Group one – no formal action taken

Six interviewees were blocked or dissuaded from reporting to their institution or were unable to get a formal complaint acted on by their institution (see Bull and Rye, 2018). This meant that there was no possibility for remedy. For three of this group, informal action only was taken, and three further interviewees found that no action at all was taken. 

It should be noted that all of this group wanted formal action to be taken. A lack of formal action meant that there was no possibility for remedy, nor was there any oversight or accountability for any of the institutions involved. For these interviewees, therefore, existing governance and accountability structures entirely failed them. This highlights a perhaps insurmountable problem in the current OIA system: that their services are not accessible for those whose complaints are not taken up formally by their institution.

  • Group two – third party complainants and witnesses

This group consists of three interviewees who were involved in a complaints process on behalf of others. Two were named or contacted by other women who had been victimised by the same staff member to give evidence to support their complaint, and one tried to make a complaint after becoming aware of two students being victimised by the same staff member in her department. Overall, this group were not offered any remedy as they were not the primary complainant or victim. This highlights an issue with the individualised nature of complaints processes for dealing with systemic issues where multiple students and/or staff are likely to be targeted by the same harasser (Bull and Rye, 2018; Cantalupo and Kidder, 2018). Witnesses who have been subject to sexual misconduct themselves need to also have the option of having rights, or at a minimum, support and protection from victimisation during the complaints process.

  • Group three – process incomplete

For these two complainants, their complaint was initially acted on and formal investigations were launched, but there was no clear outcome to the process. One interviewee in this group was Sara. She went through both an informal and then a formal stage of investigations within her institution. After this, there was one further round of complaints to complete before she had exhausted the internal complaints process and could go to the OIA. However, after two rounds of complaints processes, her physical and mental health was severely impacted and she had entirely lost faith in the university’s processes due to multiple failures in the process. She described how:

I was really depressed and I felt suicidal, because it seemed like, no matter what I do, with or without evidence, nothing is going to change […] I would’ve gone for the [second stage of formal complaints], but obviously it was pointless, so I didn’t bother. I couldn’t really listen to them talk about how it’s all my fault anymore.

This shows the trauma of the complaints process exacerbating the impacts of the initial misconduct. The trauma of going through the complaints process, often without any support, was a common theme for those who made it this far in the process, and this is crucial in understanding why sexual misconduct complainants rarely managed to access the OIA.

  • Group four – Formal remedy obtained

Four students managed to obtain formal remedy from their institution. For two of these, the remedies were offered by the institution after an internal process, while the other two had to resort to external agencies to gain remedy: in one case, the OIA, and in another case, legal action against their institution. All of these students received some form of financial recompense, whether a tuition fee refund or payout, for example for ‘stress and inconvenience’.

The failure of most complainants to obtain remedy, and the difficult experiences of those who did, reveals the inadequacies of using an individualist, consumer-oriented model for addressing discrimination complaints in HE. The article also contributes to discussions of justice for sexual violence survivors, suggesting that community-oriented remedies are needed alongside formal administrative justice processes to address power-based sexual misconduct in institutions.

Research update: staff sexual misconduct articles

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