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Two UCD staff members disciplined after allegations of sexual misconduct

The number of official complaints received by universities in recent years “cannot paint the full picture”, activists say.

File photo. UCD.
File photo. UCD.
Image: Shutterstock/haireena

THERE HAVE BEEN ten cases in the past three years where lecturers and other staff members at Irish universities have been accused of sexual misconduct.

In two of these cases at UCD, it has resulted in the staff members receiving disciplinary action according to documents released to TheJournal.ie under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

The number of cases is small relative to the thousands of staff members at these universities but that doesn’t mean these figures aren’t a worry, according to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre CEO Noeline Blackwell.

She told TheJournal.ie: “This cannot be the full picture. It’s inconceivable in workplaces, institutions and universities that there are so few instances of sexual harassment.”

We asked the same questions to each university.

We asked how many allegations of sexual misconduct, covering harassment, inappropriate behaviour and assault, had been made against lecturers and other staff within the university since 2015.

We asked how many investigations took place into such allegations, and how many staff members had disciplinary action initiated against them on the foot of said allegations.

In many cases, the university’s policy in such matters advised aiming to resolve issues that arise in an informal manner at first, before making a formal complaint – unless the initial concern is serious enough to warrant going straight to the formal complaints procedure.

UCD

The person acting as the  FOI decision maker at UCD decided to grant the request for information in full.

It said: “Since 2015, there have been three formal allegations of sexual harassment made against lecturers/staff within the university.

UCD conducted investigations into all three formal allegations in accordance with the Dignity and Respect policy, following which two lecturers/staff had disciplinary action initiated against them.

In this policy on UCD’s website, it says there are “several ways where dignity and respect issues can be dealt with informally”.

Engaging in formal procedures can occur when informal attempts to resolve have been unsuccessful, what is being alleged is too serious to be treated informally, and if what is being alleged continues after an informal process.

The making of a formal complaint, leads to an investigation which can lead to “appropriate disciplinary action” if it is upheld.

Trinity

Trinity College Dublin refused our request for this information to be provided.

The decision maker said: “In making this decision I consider that the public interest in the right of access does not outweigh the public interest in upholding the privacy of the individual(s) concerned.”

However, Trinity did say that there have been no accusations of “sexual assault” made by students against staff members at the university during this time.

Maynooth University

There have been three alleged instances of sexual harassment in Maynooth.

“Due to the small numbers in question the university would be in breach of data protection legislation to disclose further information about the allegations,” the university said.

The college also directed us to its policies on the matter.

It cites examples of misconduct which include sexual gestures, displaying sexually suggestive objects, sending sexually suggestive or pornographic correspondence, unwanted sexual comments and jokes, or unwanted physical contact. Maynooth also recommends informal resolution before progressing to formal complaints.

NUI Galway

The request was granted by NUI Galway.

It said that there’d been one allegation of sexual misconduct in the past three years. One investigation against a staff member is currently under way. No staff member has been disciplined in relation to any allegation of sexual misconduct in this time.

DCU

Dublin City University said there’d been no cases relating to staff since 2015, and therefore no investigations or disciplinary action had been taken.

University of Limerick

The University of Limerick also advised there’d been no cases of official complaints made in this regard since 2015.

UCC

University College Cork took a similar approach to Maynooth.

It said that three allegations of sexual harassment had been received since 2015. Two investigations were conducted under its Duty of Respect and Right to Dignity Policy. One of the allegations was withdrawn.

Details on whether disciplinary action had been taken were not disclosed.

‘A lot of work needs to be done’

Research published last year by NUI Galway showed that over half of women reported unwelcome comments about their bodies or sexual activities by their third year in college, while over half had also reported someone making unwelcome comments about their bodies or sexual activities.

While these stats don’t specifically single out reports of misconduct from staff towards students, 57% of first years said they’d received some sort of unwanted sexual attention since beginning college. 

Blackwell said the relatively small figures raise questions.

“People are coming in to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and phoning the helpline,” she said. “They’re uneasy in class, at their college and sometimes unable to cope with things. They don’t have a safe space, and a lot of work needs to be done on this.

I really worry here about the fact that process may not be conducive to getting the support of the university. It has to be the case that they’re not.

Writing in TheJournal.ie late last year, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said the figures “paint a picture of third-level institutions hot housing harassment and assault”. 

She said that institutions in receipt of public funding must demonstrate a uniform minimum standard of best practice engagement.

“Moving the voluntary commitment that many institutions already demonstrate to a formal footing,” the minister said. “My office will be supporting a small working group to establish a best practice and policy models to address this issue.”

Blackwell acknowledged that for high numbers to emerge of cases of sexual misconduct or assault from a certain university carries a “reputational risk”.

She added: “But there’s a real reputational risk attached to not keeping your students safe. Processes aren’t there and systems aren’t there.”

Given the prevalence of the #Me Too movement that has seen instances of sexual harassment called out and highlighted, Blackwell said a lot has moved forward in recent times.

“We need to keep working at ways to provide help to people who need it in a timely way,” she said. “Student unions are doing great work. Mitchell O’Connor at government level is doing good work. At the same time we need the systems that universities have in place to respond and change to help deal with what’s happening to people.”

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Sean Murray

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