The pandemic of sexual abuse in universities: ‘They’re more concerned with protecting their reputations than female students’

Dr Ann Olivarius
·5-min read
'You’d think that the institution tasked with educating you and keeping you safe would want to help you' - Peopleimages/Digital Vision
'You’d think that the institution tasked with educating you and keeping you safe would want to help you' - Peopleimages/Digital Vision

When you start university or college, you’re told it’ll be “the best years of your life”. It’s when you gain crucial skills, form life-long friendships and create networks that will sustain your career in decades to come. 

But what happens to those dreams if you end up cowering in your own room, too afraid to leave because you might bump into your rapist on campus? How can you excel at your studies if you’re constantly looking over your shoulder, and fighting a Kafkaesque bureaucracy with infinitely more resources? How can you thrive and heal if you’re threatened with legal action for telling your story, even anonymously? 

You’d think that the institution tasked with educating you and keeping you safe, to which you pay thousands of pounds for the privilege, would want to help you. 

Often, you’d be mistaken. 

All of the above happened to a client of ours at a UK university. Sitting alone in her room, she was visited by a fellow student who violently raped her. Her attempts to fight him off left scratch marks on his face, which his friends proudly photographed and shared at the uni bar. 

The university’s handling of her complaint was typical of many. They encouraged her not to file an internal complaint (“no one will do anything anyway”). They told her that, unless she went to the police, the university would not take action. 

Once she’d filed a police report, the university still refused to take action as long as the police investigation was ongoing. In order to protect her from her rapist, they told her not to leave her room unless she found a chaperone to take her around campus, to avoid the library and the canteen. But when she reached out for support online to a closed survivors’ group, anonymising her rapist, the university promptly sprang into action. It threatened her with libel if she didn’t retract her post and apologise. The university’s response to our client’s rape complaint and request for help boiled down to demanding that she sequester herself in her room and cut herself off from all support. 

This is just one example, but representative, of how universities create hostile environments for victims. We’d love to tell you roughly how many of these cases there are, but we can’t. Nobody knows. 

Britain has no centralised reporting system for sexual misconduct in higher education. Each college and university has a different reporting system and taxonomy of offences. The same opacity, for slightly different reasons, bedevils the US. We cannot tell if one university is doing better than before, or better than competitors. Students and their parents are robbed of this crucial information when choosing where to apply, and advocates for change are unable to tell if new measures are working. 

What we do know is that the pandemic has made matters worse for those who were already struggling and rendered others vulnerable in new ways. At universities, sexual assault and harassment have not magically disappeared just because the virus appeared. Support, however, has dwindled or become discouragingly labyrinthine. In this vacuum, it’s no surprise students turn to each other and social media. Over the summer, our firm noticed survivors’ groups on Instagram doing what universities should have been doing all along: creating (dare we say it) safe spaces for victims to share their stories, find help, exchange information and get advice. 

While universities tend to drag their feet when it comes to helping victims, they move fast enough to protect their own reputation.   

In one of our recent cases, a group of female students had come across a social media group where fellow students – boys they thought were friends – discussed extreme, violent, humiliating sexual acts they would like to subject the girls to, singling them out by name. 

And who did Warwick university bring in to talk to the students? The head of press. They chose the staff member tasked with protecting and enhancing the university’s image, instead of someone with legal expertise or knowledge about sexual trauma. This awkward mishandling of the case defeated its original goal of reputational damage control. The outcry, on social media, in the press, and among alumni and academics, proved impossible to ignore. 

Two of the worst perpetrators were initially given 10-year bans from campus, then had their sentences reduced on appeal to one year before voluntarily discontinuing their studies – something the female students who were victims of their “banter” only learnt in the media. 

After an independent review last year, the university was forced to apologise. It concluded there was a “general sense” the university “had been more concerned with its own reputational interests than in a fair or just assessment of the case”. 

Similarly, we’ve seen in our US cases how universities reflexively deny the seriousness of sexual harassment complaints, when it would be better not only for students but for the university’s reputation to take them seriously.  

In one our clients, a group of professors and graduate students at the University of Rochesterm sued when it retaliated against them over their sexual harassment complaints against Professor Florian Jaeger (which he has always denied). The university instantly dug in, cleared the Prof and fast-tracked his promotion, expecting the complainants would lose heart.

Instead they persevered, in fact being named Time’s Persons Of The Year in 2017, along with the women who brought down Harvey Weinstein. The university ended up paying our clients $9.4 million for its mishandling of their allegations. Taking the harassment claims seriously would have saved it millions and years of bad press. 

It’s baffling to us that universities keep mistaking their own best interests for those of their students and staff. We’ve heard time and time again that UK universities “don’t want become the new Warwick” and certainly, no US university dreams of its faculty and students on the cover of Time magazine, heralded as Silence Breakers. 

Universities might be able to make themselves the cover story if instead of trying to bury these problems, they frankly admitted and tried to solve them.