Joining the dots

Since starting this blog, we have been in contact with various people who have been able to tell us more about what has happened at Goldsmiths, largely in years before we joined the college as students. Much of this has shocked us and as a group we have discussed long and hard how to best proceed.

We have received messages to the blog which detail allegations. We remain open to people who wish to come forward with their stories or other information about sexual harassment at Goldsmiths. Currently, we have been advised not to publish these stories but we are persisting in pursuing the most just outcomes for those who feel wronged by what happened. Additionally, we would like to express how grateful we are for the widespread support our blog has received from many parties.

Goldsmiths’ statements

In the course of our investigations, we have talked to a number staff at Goldsmiths in some detail. These staff members come from a variety of positions including some in management, who have confirmed the following:

“Students at the Centre for Cultural Studies (CCS) lodged concerns with the Graduate School in 2012-13. There was an informal inquiry led by a senior female professor which gave students and staff the opportunity to raise concerns. There were a number of formal investigations about the behaviours and cultures in CCS. Whether related to those investigations or not, two staff members left CCS, including John Hutnyk. The management and culture of CCS have changed since then. A senior member of staff has confirmed to their knowledge, nobody who is currently employed at Goldsmiths, has been the subject of complaints of sexual harassment.”

In addition to this statement, in the even more recent Guardian article, Goldsmiths says more directly, that, “We have confirmed that there has been inappropriate behaviour at the university in the past. Any allegations of sexual harassment are thoroughly investigated with action taken against those found responsible.”

This statement has been carefully worded to not provide any detail. However, what does become clear with this statement, is as we have previously mentioned, Goldsmiths’ recent admission that there were “cases” of certain behaviours. For many of us, the skirting around which both statements perform, strengthens the implication of the two statements; namely, that these cases contained sexual harassment or misconduct at the university. This is certainly clearer now for all to see than it was several months ago.

Evidently, there were other staff members aside from Hutnyk involved in these allegations for which we currently have no further information.

Furthermore, despite Goldsmiths’ claims that these cases were properly dealt with at the time and all problems of these kind remain firmly in the past, we remain sceptical of their statement – it does not assure us that fundamental changes in how sexual harassment is dealt with at the institution have been implemented.

The issue of consent

Even though the blog has mainly focused on one individual and one institution, we know this problem is much bigger. There has been a recent surge in university sexual harassment scandals uncovered in the media. For example, from “Beth”’s story from the Guardian which details the power-games of being in the “in circle” amidst an informal culture based in situations of alcohol consumption in pubs, to stares at her chest and touches at the waist; to the Buzzfeed article on Yale professor Thomas Pogge which details the story of Fernanda Lopez Aguilar, a young student to whom he offered career-related privileges, in effect resulting in a situation of him touching and groping her without her consent; to the bravery of Nicole Hemenway at UC Berkeley who has spoken out against repeated unwanted sexual advances by her professor Blake Wentworth, who has since begun the process of suing his (former) students. In relation to a previous blogpost, the chilling recent case of Allison Smith a former student at the University of Sussex whose lecturer partner Lee Salter physically assaulted her but who continued to teach at the university until the independent outed the case, also highlights the unjust processes which favour the already powerful.

Features occur and re-occur when one reads these stories, not only of universities who continue to protect their employees over their students’ wellbeing, but the power dynamics of lecturer/professor-student relationships are crystallised which make the discussion around “consent” extremely problematic: the breaking down of formalities by the lecturer, the gradual romantic or sexual advances, the granting of privileges in terms of promises of connections, jobs, opportunities attractive to students, in most of these cases, the final rejection of sexual advances by the student followed a complaint and the denial of sexual harassment by the lecturer/professor. Often in the complexities of these interactions, abusive behaviour is not recognised as such at the time it happens.

The issue of “consent” within student-lecturer relationships is a divisive one and one which even within our group, not everyone is wholly in agreement upon. However, what our group has agreed upon is that the systematic abuse of power through mechanisms of bullying (be it through the timely granting or revoking of favours according to the behaviour of a student), witnessed across several cases of repeated sexual relations or harassment between students and lecturers, is a clear wrongdoing. In many of these cases, there is evidence that the perpetrators are repeat offenders. In a relationship which is so clearly marked by authority as that of a student to a lecturer, a transgression of boundaries initiated by the person in a position of power cannot serially be explained away as merely a series of consensual relationships. This, to us, simply does not add up.

We would like to make the following clear: of course, people who act in abusive and inappropriate ways in some relationships might not be that way in all their relationships. So, those who are accused of harassment or misconduct won’t necessarily have harassed everyone – they may well have had entirely respectful and consensual relationships, with students or with other individuals. We do not seek to speak for those who do not feel they have been subjected to inappropriate behaviour, only those who do. However, we would like to point out, that the existence of consensual relationships does not disprove any other allegations of harassment.

Our investigation continues…

While Goldsmiths seems to think that this is no longer a problem, we remain concerned that the processes of dealing with student complaints about harassment and sexual misconduct are still not satisfactory. Apart from Goldsmiths’ own assurances that allegations of sexual harassment are “thoroughly investigated with action taken against those responsible”, since starting our investigation we are not left convinced that apart from ridding the university of some of its problematic staff, that there are appropriate measures in place which sufficiently protect students against such issues presently or in the future. We have seen in examples from other institutions how endemic both continued support for the perpetrator and victim-blaming is in these situations and we are not convinced that these processes have been sufficiently overhauled.

As one of the leading lawyers for sexual harassment in the UK and US points out in the Guardian article, “There are very few penalties for academics who sexually harass their students; until penalties are established and made known, the problem will continue.” We will continue our investigation to uncover what other staff members have been involved in sexual harassment scandals at Goldsmiths. We will continue to act in solidarity with victims and survivors of sexual harassment at Goldsmiths and at other institutions.

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