Duty of care – Cambridge University blues


Published 11 October 2019

A Cambridge archaeology graduate is suing the University under the Equality Act 2010 for discrimination arising out of its handling of her formal complaint of harassment.

Danielle Bradford made a formal complaint under the University’s disciplinary procedure about an older male student. Despite his supervisory role, this student had been sending her up to 50 messages per day, many of which were of a sexual nature.

Ms Bradford alleges that pressure was then put on her to drop her complaint.  She was told that she should think about it very carefully, since both her place in the department and, if she wanted to continue with archaeology, her future career could be affected. She was instructed not to discuss her case with anyone and warned that breaching confidentiality could result in her being sued for harassment by the perpetrator.

She declined to drop her complaint, which was subsequently upheld. The outcome was that an apology was given and a no-contact ruling made, the effect of which was to bar her from certain locations where the perpetrator was working. She was thus prevented from attending some classes but, due to the confidentiality restriction, was precluded from informing lecturers of the reason for her absence.

The ruling left Ms Bradford feeling vulnerable and “re-victimised”.  She emphasised how no action had been taken which might prevent the same thing happening to another student. No restrictions were placed on the perpetrator’s teaching. Nor was he required to undergo any training. He would again be present on the same field-site with young women students in subsequent years. In her view, no-one else was made safe.

She remains most critical of the procedure followed by the University, which was represented by its Advocate. Despite his supervisory role, the perpetrator was treated as a student. He was permitted to input into the composition of the panel that tried the case and to appeal the decision. Ms Bradford was not treated as the complainant, but as a witness. The perpetrator was represented by a lawyer. Because it was impossible to refute the screenshot evidence of the messages, she was cross-examined about her mental health in an attempt to destroy her character. She had no legal representation and no right to be heard or to see documentation. She was not provided with a copy of the letter giving reasons for the panel’s decision.

Ms Bradford summarised the impact on her in the following way: “The effect of the disciplinary procedure and how I was treated reinforced the sense instilled in me by the harassment that my safety and voice did not matter and that my needs would be subordinated to those of the University and [the perpetrator]……..…[the University] care more about PR and their image than the safety of their students”.

Cambridge University for its part denies discrimination. It is updating the disciplinary rules which were introduced in 2015. It asserts that it takes the personal safety of students very seriously and claims to play a “leading role in tackling harassment and sexual misconduct”. It points to receipt of some 165 reports made by victims using an anonymous reporting tool launched under the ‘Breaking the Silence’ initiative.  Under the disciplinary rules, 10 cases have been brought against students or former students, of which 7 originated from complaints involving sexual misconduct. (However, only 2 complaints have been upheld).

The University’s updating exercise includes the creation of a fulltime investigating officer role – the work is currently undertaken by various academics. New rules of behaviour are also being introduced. These will explicitly bar students from engaging in “physical misconduct, sexual misconduct or abusive behaviour.” More bizarrely, the standard of proof of a breach of the disciplinary code will be changed to “on a balance of probabilities”, in other words “more likely than not”. Perhaps this change is better late than never, but one wonders whether there still exists, at a university or elsewhere, any other regulatory procedure which requires matters to be proved “beyond reasonable doubt”.

The final word goes to Dr Proudman, a barrister and research fellow at one of the Cambridge colleges. She has now called for an independent inquiry into the University’s handling of complaints. In her trenchant opinion “Cambridge is not at the ‘forefront’ of anything. The University is lagging painfully behind other institutions, dragging down vulnerable students with it and falling far short in its duty of care.”

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