What to do about staff sexual harassment within your university


Dr. Anna Bull of the 1752 Group gave a spirited and powerful address at our AGM in April. Here she outlines some practical steps that can be taken to tackle the problems the group addresses in your institution. You can find her on Twitter at @anna_bull_; The 1752 Group tweet at @1752group.

An urgent issue to address in relation to gender inequalities in higher education is sexual harassment and misconduct by university staff. I spoke at the recent Women’s Classical Committee AGM on this issue, on behalf of The 1752 Group, a research and lobby organisation which is working nationally in this area. There is a lot of scope for practical action within individual institutions, and attendees were particularly interested in hearing about these ideas, so in this blog post I discuss some of these.

If you want to read more about the wider issues of staff sexual misconduct, you can read our comment pieces in the Huffington Post and on HE blog Wonkhe as well as analysis by The 1752 Group co-founder Tiffany Page along with Leila Whitley in New Formations. We use the term ‘sexual misconduct’ to encompass a broader range of behaviours than just sexual harassment or assault including grooming, bullying, sexual invitations, comments, non-verbal communication, creation of atmospheres of discomfort, or promised resources in exchange for sexual access. In short, it involves forms of power enacted by academic and professional staff in their relations with undergraduate and postgraduate students, or between staff members.

Find allies.

First and most importantly, find allies and make the issue a collective one. Acting alone, for example by whistleblowing, making an individual complaint, or approaching a perpetrator of sexual misconduct to discuss their behaviour, puts you at risk of retaliation. The more people who are working together on this issue, the more likely that you will be able to challenge powerful individuals who are sexually harassing students or covering up for others who do so. Choose allies carefully by sounding people out first (bearing in mind that those perpetrating abuse or harassment may also have support within a union). It may be necessary to start by acting informally, for example asking around about stories of sexual harassment and misconduct, and offering to be in touch with students speaking about these experiences.

There may be someone in a position of power within your institution who is willing to be a ‘champion’ or spokesperson on the issue of staff-student sexual misconduct. There are often people in senior positions willing to be allies but who are unaware of the situation at hand, so you may wish to approach a member of the senior management team at your institution who is likely to be sympathetic. Leadership is key to bringing about institutional cultural change around this issue. Try to find someone in a senior leadership position who will be prepared to put their neck out if it comes to fighting entrenched power.

You may become aware of forms of sexual misconduct or ongoing sexual harassment which you are not experiencing yourself. While it may not be possible to start an inquiry without student complaints, it is still possible for a member of staff or union representative to alert the responsible people named on institutional policies that there is an ongoing issue. There should be someone from the senior management team named in such policies. They are likely to respond that there is nothing they can do without a formal complaint. However, if they have previously declared their commitment to ‘zero tolerance’ of sexual harassment (a commonly-used and often meaningless phrase) then there may be other actions that can be taken to change the culture within the institution.

Audit existing policies.

Pull together all the policies you can find on sexual harassment (usually subsumed into generic bullying and harassment policies), staff student relationship policies (sometimes called conflict of interest policies), and complaints procedures. Examine all relevant policies alongside each other. You tell if it’s potentially a good policy if there is a recognition that staff and students are not equal in relationships. Better policies include at least two named people that students can report incidents to. Ideally, there should also be a named ‘Champion’ for this issue on senior management, to approach if complaints stall or disappear.

Make sure the policy (if it is a fairly good one) is easily available, for example by putting it up on noticeboards and public spaces. If it is inadequate, for example, by including a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ position on staff student sexual relationships, containing phrases such as ‘we trust both parties to behave with integrity’, then you can still make it visible but annotate it with your critical commentary.

The 1752 Group recommends that universities have a bespoke policy for staff-student sexual misconduct, as the difficulties and power imbalances that this form of harassment involves cannot be covered by generic policies. A further action you can take is therefore to lobby your institution for a bespoke policy on staff-student sexual harassment and on staff-student sexual relationships. A crucial difference is that harassment and bullying policies usually have an initial stage of ‘informal mediation’ where it is suggested that the complainant approach the person harassing them and ask them to stop. Given the power imbalance that characterises staff-student teaching relationships as well as many staff-staff relationships, this is inappropriate for sexual harassment and misconduct.

Examine complaints procedures.

Imagine that you are one of the people in these accounts of sexual harassment at university. Go through the complaints procedure and think about how you would experience making a complaint. Where are the blocks?

Start discussions within your institution about staff-student sexual relationships and sexual misconduct. Playwright Phil Thomas has made her short play about this topic publicly available under a Creative Commons licence. The play is entitled ‘The Girls Get Younger Every Year’, and puts forward one postgraduate student’s experience of a relationship of ‘blurred lines’ and exploitation of power during her studies. A play reading of this piece sets the scene well for a discussion of the complexities of this issue. This is an event that we have successfully held. Other events could include discussions or talks. These need to focus on the power imbalance and the ways in which this makes students vulnerable, an awareness which tends to be absent from discussions of this issue.

Find any other ways you can to hold institutions accountable.

Universities should be able to give clear statements of their position on this issue. You can ask the Pro-VC for student services or another senior figure in your institution to give such a statement. Here’s what we think universities should be doing:

  • Recognise & publicly acknowledge there is a problem
  • Recognise they don’t have the expertise to deal with this
  • Provide leadership from senior management – dedicate a Champion
  • Develop specific policies and reporting procedures on sexual misconduct
  • Provide support for students who have made a complaint, both during and after the complaints process
  • Train a dedicated officer as part of their job description to be the point of contact within the university
  • Invest in research and gather data: know what is happening within the institution as well as nationally; communicate & share with other universities

Finally, recognise that this work can be very draining, and may involve a heavy investment of emotional labour. Practice self-care; do what you can. We can’t change everything at once, and this work takes time, but it’s important to start.


  1. Jill Yates

    I am writing from Perth, Australia. I’m seriously considering re-visiting the sexual (and subsequently professional) harassment situation I faced (many years ago…tho’ it was career wrecking). I am heartened to encounter public sites such as yours, seriously acknowledging scenarios of dreadful conduct by academic staff on academic staff which directly relates to me. My motivation centres on reestablishing my good character – personal and professional. I think this will be along the lines of identifying a lack of duty of care by the university, which necessitated my giving up a tenured position. At the time a prominent Federal female politician (in her opposition shadow role of Office for the enhancement of women or suchlike) wrote to the university on my behalf. The reply (from the Vice-chancellor) implied I’d exaggerated and made it up! Critically my valid research-driven love of the field has been wasted, overlooked and ignored. THIS is my pain. Thanks for this opportunity to comment.

Leave a Reply