The National Women’s Council has welcomed plans by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Simon Harris, to adopt a “zero tolerance approach” to sexual violence and harassment in third level institutions.
NWC director, Orla O’Connor, said Mr Harris’ recent instruction to all universities and other colleges to draw up an action plan for tackling the problem on their campuses, which will be overseen by the Higher Education Authority, was “a very positive” development.
Ms O’Connor’s comments follow a report in The Irish Times on Saturday in which the broadcaster and UCD lecturer, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, revealed how she had been subject to regular harassment by a professor at the university, Hans-Benjamin Braun, over a two-year period after she had first reported the issue to the authorities in Belfield.
In the article, Dr Ní Shúilleabháin related how Braun had regularly shown up in her office at UCD, asked her out on dates, made persistent phone calls and in one incident followed her to a hotel in Cork where she was staying.
Braun (58), who worked in UCD until 2019, was issued with a court order in late 2019 barring him from contacting her for five years after she had reported the matter to gardaí.
In a statement, UCD president, Andrew Deeks apologised to Dr Ní Shúilleabháin as well as other colleagues and students who had suffered similar experiences at the university.
“Bullying, harassment, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct have no place in UCD and we are already working to strengthen our current policies with a number of measures,” said Prof Deeks.
The UCD president said the university would adopt “a core procedural shift” in future by giving it the option to investigate allegations of sexual harassment without a formal complaint being made.
Other measures include a new concept of disclosure on sexual harassment and misconduct as well as clarifying the relationship between informal and formal internal complaints and complaints to gardaí.
Bystander intervention training
Prof Deeks said “Bystander Intervention Training” would be a key part of orientation for all new undergraduates later this month in addition to the Report and Support tool introduced by the university earlier this year.
The UCD president said he had no doubt that it had been a very difficult personal decision for Dr Ní Shúilleabháin to come forward with her story and he believed it would play a very important role in publicly highlighting the challenge faced by the third level sector in addressing such incidents.
Commending Dr Ní Shúilleabháin on her bravery and courage in speaking publicly about her experience of sexual harassment, Ms O’Connor said it showed very clearly the impact it had on a person’s life.
“We certainly don’t think people overestimate how difficult that is to do – putting your personal life at the centre of a very public story and an important one,” she observed.
Ms O’Connor said Dr Ní Shúilleabháin’s account of having to lock her office door to feel safe and her fear of being followed “really did capture the seriousness of the issue”.
Speaking on RTÉ Radio One’s This Week, the NWWC director said she believed the problem of harassment was not being taken sufficiently serious, particularly in relation to responses to address it.
She said it appeared the matter was only take more seriously after the broadcaster and lecturer had reported Braun’s conduct to gardaí.
Ms O’Connor said the article also highlighted how it was left to Dr Ní Shúilleabháin herself to put in place measures to protect herself at a time when she needed help and support.
“That is one of the things that we really need to change in both third level institutions and in all workplaces,” Ms O’Connor added.
Meanwhile, Mr Harris said he had recently written to the presidents of all third-level colleges instructing them to draw up and publish an action plan for dealing with sexual violence and harassment on their campuses.
The Minister said he was also seeking to give the Higher Education Authority a strong oversight role in ensuring such action plans would be implemented.
A new survey designed to establish the scale of the problem in third level institutes will be carried out this autumn after being commissioned by the Department of Further and Higher Education, while colleges have also been instructed to provide mandatory “consent classes” for all first-year students.
Mr Harris said he had asked the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland to examine their rules to see if their funding of third-level colleges could be affected if any researchers were found to be involved in sexual harassment.
The Minister said he had also requested individual colleges as well as the HEA to conduct a public awareness campaign about the issue.
In a video posted on his Twitter account, Mr Harris remarked: “Let me be clear – if there are any old dinosaurs out there in the system, your day is gone.”
The third level sector is to be “an environment of respect, inclusion, tolerance and safety”, Mr Harris said.
The Minister said he had met Dr Ní Shúilleabháin in recent weeks and thanked her for speaking out about “the most horrific experiences she had to endure”.
He remarked: “She shouldn’t have had to endure what she endured and we need to make sure it never happens again.”
Mr Harris said he was determined to make sure that real progress would be made on the issue of sexual harassment.
“Strong words must be matched by action, by clear tangible action for frameworks and guidelines are worth nothing unless they’re implemented,” he added.