The rise in the number of students reporting incidents of sexual assault and harassment to UCD campus services shows the the college can no longer shirk their responsibility to victims.
It’s not disputed that any victim of a sexual assault or incidents of harassment should first contact the authorities such as the Gardaí, or the Rape Crisis Centre. But this does not absolve UCD of taking responsibility for tackling the issue in the college community. Victims of an alleged assault or constant harassment should not have to walk around campus constantly fearful that they may run into their perpetrator at any given time. Students should feel their university is there to support them.
Information on the complaints process and how to make a complaint to UCD is hidden from the college’s website, which instead pushes students with sexual assault or harassment queries to the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. The obstacles in simply finding out how to make a procedural complaint to UCD against another student or member of staff for sexual harassment is indicative of the university’s attitude to the issue. The lack of visibility or assistance in openly encouraging students who have been assaulted or harassed to bring their concerns to UCD is telling of the college’s unwillingness to listen.
What kind of constructive change should students, SU representatives and concerned staff advocate for then? A more open and visible system for the reporting of incidents of assault or harassment is needed. The rise in reports the Tribune reveals in our lead is undoubtedly an understatement of the actual number of incidents that go unreported. Substantially better education on how to respond to a student making a disclosure of sexual violence or harassment should be relayed to staff in UCD, from lecturers, to student advisors, Student Union officers, and student society auditors. The outdated crutch of simply pawning a student disclosing their sexual assault or harassment off to counselling is entirely inadequate. University leadership should openly commit to proactively tackling the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus. UCD taking an active role in the National Women’s Council of Ireland’s campaign to tackle sexual violence in higher education would represent a positive step by
the university administration. The administration should aim to create a climate that has zero-tolerance for sexual harassment on campus, rather than remaining ambivalent and silent on the issue. We need a campus community where victims feel UCD will listen and help them if they take their concerns to the college.
One way to force real effective change in how UCD deals with the issue of sexual assault and harassment on campus, is to link progress to research funding. In 2014 the Irish Higher Education Authority announced it had signed up to the Athena Swan charter. The Athena charter is a set of three certificates (bronze, silver and gold), awarded when third-level institutions make progress tackling the issue of gender inequality. In 2015 Trinity, UCC and the University of Limerick received Bronze certificates. Following this the Irish Research Council, Science Foundation Ireland and the Health Research Board all announced that Irish higher education institutions would have to have achieved a ‘Bronze’ Athena award by 2019 to be eligible for future state research grants. Suddenly a UCD diversity and inclusion UMT sub-committee, an LGBT+ staff support network, and an equality and inclusion report sprang up, as well as President Deeks creating a vice-President role for diversity, equality and inclusion.
This month it was announced the university had qualified for the Bronze Athena Swan certificate. Meaning while the university management’s ends may have been cynical, the results are encouraging. The more effective locus of lobbying to see reform in the area of tackling sexual assault may then be the Minister for Education and the HEA, to push change on UCD from a national level.
The Tribune will continue to report on the issue of sexual harassment and assault on campus. But if we want to see progress and reform in how UCD support victims of sexual assault, or policies to proactively combat sexual harassment – tie progress on the issue to state research grants, and see just how quickly this university administration develops a conscience for the welfare and concerns of victims.
Jack Power Editor