The Oxford Case and University Responses to Harassment

Times Higher Education has published “Let’s Discuss The Way We Live Now,” an essay by Luke Brunning, a DPhil student in philosophy at Oxford, on the importance of universities taking students’ perspectives seriously in the aftermath of allegations of harassment or sexual misconduct by faculty.

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10 years ago

Universities have a responsibility to protect members of their community from harassment. Mr. Brunning does not allege that he has ever been a victim of harassment at Oxford except, he urges, by the University itself for not having informed him of details of the investigation that may or may not have happened in response to an allegation of harassment by some other student (now deceased) which she is alleged to have made against a lecturer (who states the he is now dismissed, almost a year later, for reasons that do not sound like he harassed her but rather that he was harassed by some student).

Mr. Brunning affirms that he is part of a group of students some of whose members may have been inconvenienced by the University’s scheduling a meeting at 8pm to field their questions which by law they are not allowed to answer, and whose vulnerability requires that a lecturer be suspended from contact with students prior to a finding of guilt of misconduct which he may or may not have been charged with.

He claims that the real epistemic problem of harassment is not of finding the guilt or innocence of the accused, or even whether they have been accused, but rather the problem of those parties not in any way directly involved to have knowledge of the case which may or may not have been happening. He says that students have a special right to this, as if professors cannot be victims of harassment too, for instance by students. He represents himself as part of a campaign that had lobbied the University to suspend the lecturer prior to finding of guilt, but does not consider this to be harassment of the lecturer.

Mr. Brunning in fact does claim to know something about the case, namely that the deceased student did file a harassment complaint with the University against the lecturer, and that she did likewise with the police who issued a harassment warning. Mr. Brunning does not explain how he claims to know these things, although there were newspaper accounts in which these statements were made by the person had been the boyfriend of the deceased until the day when he didn’t realize she meant it when she said to him “I can’t live without you” when he ended their relationship. As Mr. Brunning says, philosophers love thought experiments, so let’s suppose it’s true that the student filed these complaints, and the lecturer was issued such a police warning.

What follows from these suppositions? Mr. Brunning seems to think that it is a failing on the University that it didn’t quickly move to suspend or discipline the lecturer. He takes it that the issuing of a police warning is sufficient for such. But first of all, under UK law, what such an action by the police means is that they have received a complaint of conduct such that, if it occurred as alleged, it would constitute harassment if it were repeated. It is not even a finding that any conduct occurred, much less that it was harassment; it is a notification to the recipient that an allegation has been made so as to deter them from performing actions of the kind alleged. It is unfortunate that such a lack of finding of guilt might not budge Mr. Brunning from his views, given his disregard for the lesson which he thinks he is supposed to have learned if only he had read Trollope.

Second of all, standard practices for harassment procedures at universities involve a distinction between informal and formal resolution of complaints. Informal resolution may involve direct or indirect mediation between the parties. What Mr. Brunning has in mind is formal resolution, where the complainant decides to press charges for a disciplinary action against the recipient. In Oxford’s case, such procedures against staff are described under the very regulation cited by the Open Letter which Mr. Brunning supports. Mr. Brunning does not represent himself as knowing that the complaint filed was a formal one as opposed to an informal one.

It is a good question why the lecturer would have been dismissed after such a long period if the student had filed a formal complaint against him. It is an even more interesting question why he would have been dismissed if she had not filed a formal complaint against him.