UNIVERSITIES AND SEXUAL HARRASSMENT: AN ABUSE OF POWER?

Prepared by:  Ola Matranxhi, Beat Sexism UK

It is evident, from recent changes to law and recent improvements of institutions such as universities, that sexual harassment is being dealt with much more seriously, given the outcry from society and this boost of confidence amongst women, and men, to speak up about such an important issue. Women, in particular, have stood up against those in dominant positions or those who are more in power to fight for their rights. Examples range from the Me Too campaign to protests at universities fighting for basic women’s rights. Whilst this change has been positive, there is still a long way to go to stop this “abuse of power” by certain people.

A recent news story highlights not only the abuse of power by some people but also the flaws in some institutions today in regard to dealing with issues such as sexual harassment. At the University of Cambridge, a professor in Modern and Medieval Languages named Dr. Peter Hutchinson, was claimed to have sexually harassed 10 students in 2015. The allegations even date back to 2005, where a female student claimed that he groped her. This was quickly dismissed at the time, showing how the collegiate system’s support for such matters were non-existent, which is a huge shame.

A shock of having 10 female students accusing him of sexual harassment meant he agreed to withdraw from teaching at the university. However, the privilege of him still being a fellow at Trinity Hall College meant he would still be advising the college on investment decisions and day-to-day running of the college. The university is made up of 31 colleges, where they are run independently. He was not involved with students, however rather with college life. This still remains unacceptable and shows the flaw in this old-fashioned system; as a fellow, he was not fired given these allegations as it does not say under such a contract that they can be fired for this. The abuse of power here is explicit. Whilst it is understandable that fellows at such a prestigious university should be respected given the dedication to their research and time invested into their college of residence, it still does not mean certain things should be allowed to slide, especially those regarding sexual harassment. This is an abuse of power at university, where such an old-fashioned system should change because this outdated system has allowed for Dr. Hutchinson to still remain in contact with the university. This implicitly creates the idea that he has done nothing wrong as he was not punished as he still had his title as a fellow at Trinity Hall College. This is where the university went wrong; institutions like Cambridge University should accept more modern approaches to how their institutions are run as well as think about updating rules regarding fellows and those extremely high up in this prestigious institution.

The outcry of him then being spotted at some university events then meant Trinity Hall College had to permanently exclude him given the negative press and the outcry of shock and anger current and even former students had towards this. Whilst we all thought that Dr. Hutchinson was never allowed to set foot into this university again, to our surprise at the start of this academic year, in 2019, he was readmitted through him being voted in by the other fellows at Trinity Hall. This readmission only shows how universities are failing in their duty of care to students. It is clear in this example that there are flaws in the collegiate system and thus institutions are allowing people with power to abuse it to their advantage. Fellows are known to be close-knit groups of people at Cambridge, where they usually have worked with one another for decades and thus have strong relationships, which is possibly why they let such things slide. This is unacceptable and is what must change in the Cambridge collegiate system. Students and their wellbeing must come first!

While this is a shame that the university readmitted Dr. Hutchinson, the university students did not disappoint, as an open letter was signed by over 1300 current and former university members to remove Dr. Hutchinson, which successfully worked, and he is now no longer a fellow at the University of Cambridge.

Whilst the collegiate system you could argue is outdated, other universities are seen to allow similar abuses of power. For example, 5 male students at the University of Warwick were known to have discussed women as rape targets, and because of this, they were banned from campus. However, recently 2 of the male students are now allowed to be on campus, as their 10-year campus ban has been revoked. This has led to an outcry amongst Warwick students as well as professors. Something needs to be done to stop allowing this abuse of power, especially in well-known institutions that have the ability to be able to fight for women’s rights!

Overall, whilst the Dr. Hutchinson case has now been dealt with, it is apparent universities must do more in support of its students, especially on these matters. Old collegiate systems and traditions should be updated in order to support these topics which have come to light in today’s society. Whilst there is support amongst the wider university community, such as the student’s union, more needs to be done within the 31 colleges at Cambridge and its internal procedures, for there to be an end to those in power abusing it.

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