In 2016 a Sussex University lecturer was convicted of assaulting a student and criminal damage. The lecturer had continued to teach following his arrest and was still employed by the university after his conviction.
The independent review subsequently commissioned by the university found that it had failed in its duty of care to the student. In particular it had failed to follow its own policies and procedures, had carried out an inadequate risk assessment, had relied overmuch on HR advice and failed to communicate with the victim in a professional manner.
In 2018 three Warwick University students were expelled and two more excluded for 12 months for having shared violent, sexually explicit (and racist) content online over a lengthy period. This material, described by them as “lads’ chat”, which included references to gang rape and genital mutilation, involved identification of females who were fellow students.
The independent review by criminal lawyer Dr Sharon Persaud into the university’s disciplinary and appeals processes found them to be “very problematic” and “in need of fundamental reform”. She concluded that students and staff had lost faith in these processes. Her recommendations included:
- specialist support for complainants
- clear terms of reference for the student disciplinary committee
- a code of conduct to be included in the student contract
- external communications more authentic and survivor-centric
- investigations to be carried out only by trained specialists
- disciplinary panels to receive specialist training.
The Sussex University case was characterised by delay in acting. By contrast, Warwick did react promptly to the complaints raised, at least initially. The University’s press director, Peter Dunn, was appointed investigating officer. He interviewed the complainants and the outcome of his investigation was reached after a month. One of the expelled students received a campus ban for life. The two other expelled students, who received 10-year campus bans, appealed the decision in their cases. After a further 4 months’ deliberation, these 10-year bans were reduced to 12 months apiece. The Vice Chancellor Prof. Stuart Croft subsequently issued a statement asserting that there was “no evidence of procedural irregularity or bias” and that the university’s investigation was closed.
After details of the case began to be tweeted, Prof. Croft issued a lengthy statement describing his “utter revulsion” on reading the material. Three days later he announced that the students who had successfully appealed would not be returning to the university – effectively overturning the appeal ruling. After a further two days there was a march on the campus involving students and staff members, reflecting their concerns. The same day the university released a statement regretting the distress caused to the victims, although there was no personal apology to them until much later.
There was a further twist to this unhappy narrative. One of the complainants was required to sit her exam paper alone in a room but alongside one of those disciplined in the case. Understandably she found this very difficult indeed. The university blamed this on a “miscommunication about room scheduling”.
The next chapter is yet to be written. The police have declined to take action. However, two of the victims are suing the university for sex discrimination and the negligent performance of its duty of care owed to students.
The majority of the lessons to be learned are reflected in the above recommendations of Dr Persaud. 3 issues merit further comment:
Impartiality and independence
It is manifestly important that allegations of this type should be investigated and assessed by impartial, if necessary independent, eyes. During Mr Dunn’s investigation he told the complainants of his plan to release a statement to the media and asked for their feedback. This was, needless to say, highly inappropriate and highlighted the conflict of interest inherent in his appointment and intrinsic in the university’s reputational concerns. As Dr Persaud concluded: “There was a sense that the university was more concerned with preserving its reputation, rather than conducting a fair assessment of the case.”
Another of Dr Persaud’s recommendations was that all parties should sign an agreement which would limit disclosure of information. Apart from the obvious difficulty of deciding who was a “party” to the investigation, this has unfortunate echoes of the use of confidentiality agreements in settlements with employees. Suffice it to say that nothing will ensure a correct process and outcome like daylight in a proceeding.
There are indications that the university did not acknowledge that these complaints were first and foremost a safeguarding issue. For example, the complainants were not told of the initial outcome of the investigation. One commented “I felt it was just me and my other complainant against an entire institution that was never ever going to listen to us”.
Irrespective of the outcome of the civil proceedings, this saga will continue to provide ample material for academic and other study for some time. The Vice Chancellor observed “There are legitimate questions raised about the university’s handling of this extremely difficult case”. One of the early questions might be: ‘You were in a hole, so why did you not stop digging?’
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