April 09, 2014

Let’s discuss the way we live now

Last month, the chair of the University of Oxford’s Faculty of Philosophy stunned many former student colleagues of suicide victim Charlotte Coursier by suggesting that the novels of Anthony Trollope may comfort those upset by the continued presence in their community of an academic that she claimed had harassed her.

Philosophical appeals to literature are usually heartening, but real life is not an epistemology seminar. If this remark is representative of academic approaches to student welfare, the sector has a serious problem.

Ms Coursier, a graduate student in philosophy, committed suicide in June last year. The previous month, she had informed the faculty and the police that she was suffering harassment. The alleged perpetrator, Jeffrey Ketland, was a lecturer and fellow of Pembroke College. The coroner’s inquest into her death last month heard that he received a harassment warning from the police, but he remained employed. It was not until last week that Dr Ketland revealed on a philosophy blog that he has been sacked.

I have not read Trollope. Apparently he depicts the dangers of deceptive appearances; the plight of ignored innocents. Doubtless our faculty chair was right that imaginative exertion can help people understand the importance of due process. Yet, in my experience within the philosophy community, both in person and online, most engagement with harassment in higher education deploys the imagination selectively. Students are encouraged to inhabit the perspective of the alleged harasser, and overlook the viewpoint of victims or those students who feel unsafe. This imaginative imbalance harms students. We need richer reflection about serious responses to harassment.

Oxford students articulated their outrage at the university’s response to Ms Coursier’s allegations in an open letter. Outrage seems lifeless without context, so imagine learning that members of your own academic faculty were not informed of the alleged harassment and suicide of one of their students. Then picture sitting in meetings listening to senior academics emphasising the “epistemic problem” of harassment, but ignoring the psychological toll that the gradual emergence of the details of the case has taken on their students.

You expect, given your institution’s duty to protect the vulnerable, to have all relevant information passed on to you. Instead, you are confronted by silence. Your emails are ignored and your freedom of information requests rebuffed. At the very least, you expect a statement from your faculty, but none is forthcoming. So you wait. Eventually you read about the student’s alleged harassment in a newspaper. Still nothing. Finally, after national media coverage, a cryptic email invites you to a meeting. It is at 8pm so you are thankful you live close to the faculty building and don’t have children. When you arrive, there is much talk of justice, and a smattering of Latin phrases. You’re told there will be “no discussion of specific cases”. To understand why, a professor advises you to read Trollope.

Things could be worse. Imagine having arrived at the university last October. Other universities offered you funding but you rejected it to work at Oxford with the leading expert in your field. Months later, quite by chance, you indignantly learn of allegations that that expert harassed a student. Despite that, you then learn that he has still had “institutionally mediated contact” with students.

Oxford says it has been as communicative as the law permits it to be and many think the university’s silence illustrates its diligent adherence to harassment policy. Let’s presuppose the university did adhere to its procedures in responding to Ms Coursier’s allegations. (Philosophers enjoy thought experiments.) The conclusion must then be that these procedures are inadequately timely and transparent.

Yet some faculty members conceded that the faculty could have done more to communicate with current and prospective students. This highlights the importance of taking the widest range of supportive actions consistent with existing university policies. Only sensitive and accommodating action by departments can prevent harm to student communities in such situations.

University regulations define harassment as conduct with “the purpose or effect” of “creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment”. The caustic irony of these past months is that if the University of Oxford were itself a person, it would be open to accusations of harassment. It created an intimidating and offensive environment by failing to respond adequately to allegations. It failed to do everything possible to support and reassure vulnerable students in a manner consistent with the law, or to explain to them why this was not possible.

Harassment is deplorable because it is traumatic and disruptive. Students have to battle both of these effects when a university allows a person who has been accused of harassment to continue to have contact with students while official procedures drag on and on. No amount of Trollope will remedy that.

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/comment/opinion/lets-discuss-the-way-we-live-now/2012385.article

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