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UCD professor quit university group over lack of action on sexual harassment

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University College Dublin president Prof Andrew Deeks was told last year by a professor who quit a gender equality group at the university that she saw “no evidence of any commitment to take the necessary steps” to rid the campus of physical and verbal sexual harassment.

Prof Kathleen James-Chakraborty quit UCD’s Gender Equality Action Group in October 2019, “because I was not satisfied that the university’s policies on sexual harassment and discrimination were being implemented”.

Last weekend, in an interview with The Irish Times, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin outlined a two-year ordeal of harassment she faced while working in the university from Prof Hans-Benjamin Braun, who later faced a court barring order.

On Wednesday, Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris announced his intention to appoint Dublin Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Noeline Blackwell to the Governing Authority of UCD.

In an email to Prof Deeks last year, Prof James-Chakraborty, a US-born academic, wrote: “There will be no meaningful commitment to gender equality until policies are enforced, and those who violate them or evade enforcing them face serious consequences.” She did not receive a reply from Prof Deeks.

“If senior male faculty can assume that there is no risk to their careers when they engage in physical and oral harassment, no student they teach is receiving an excellent education and no staff member with whom they work is getting their legal right to a workplace free of such discrimination and harassment. There is every reason to believe women are being discriminated against in hiring processes, and the law regarding maternity leave has certainly been broken on a regular basis,” she declared in the email, which was circulated to colleagues.

‘Discouraged’

Saying that while her personal experience on the UCD campus has been a positive one, Prof James-Chakraborty said she was “discouraged that I can no longer see enough progress on the horizon and thus am unable to continue representing UCD in this [gender equality] role. I cannot stand over the absence of real accountability. UCD’s current approach to equity and diversity is undermining the careers of exactly those it is supposed to serve through time-consuming activities that in too many cases are only window dressing . . . Changing this culture will require relinquishing male privilege, but I recommend precisely that to you as the way forward.”

Unhappy that she had not received a reply from Prof Deeks, Prof James-Chakraborty said it left her with “the strong impression that he was content with the status quo” in the university.

A “lot of highly committed people, disproportionately early career women”, had taken time away from teaching and research to work “very hard” on gender equality issues on the campus, to find that they were “really just window dressing”, she said.

The UCD Gender Equality Action Group oversees the university’s gender equality work and oversees Athena SWAN applications made by the university. The Athena SWAN charter recognises good practice in higher education institutions on gender equality. In March 2017, UCD was awarded the Athena SWAN Bronze Institutional Award for a period of three years.

Apology

On Tuesday, Prof Deeks issued a “President’s Bulletin” by email to staff at UCD addressing the prolonged harassment of Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin at the university. Prof Deeks wrote: “I am greatly saddened that one of our colleagues experienced such traumatic events over an extended period, and on behalf of UCD I have apologised to Aoibhinn and to other colleagues and students who have suffered such experiences while in our care.”

On Thursday, UCD said it had not been the responsiblity of Prof Deeks to reply to Prof James-Chakraborty, but, instead, that was a role for the chair of the gender equality group, Prof Orla Feely.

In her reply last October, Prof Feely said she had been “ disappointed” to learn of Prof James-Chakraborty’s decision to resign. She had been “a strong and consistent voice” for gender equality and “will be missed”.

On Thursday night, Prof Feely told The Irish Times in a statement that a gender equality plan will be published by UCD later this month to “allow all members of the UCD community to be confident” that complaints will be dealt with appropriatlely.

“We are not yet where we want to be, but we are working hard to get there, and I am very grateful to all who are contributing to this effort,” Prof Feely declared.

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