Students criticise complaints procedure in wake of investigation

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Trigger Warnings: sexual harassment, sexual abuse, racial harassment. 

Alumni and students of the University have criticised the University’s response to cases of sexual harassment following an Al Jazeera investigation into cases at Oxford. 

The investigation by Al Jazeera found one case of a member of the History Faculty specialising in American History, Peter Thompson, in which seven complaints were made against the don by two students and five tutors. 

The complaints focused on concerns about the sexual harassment of students, and the consumption of alcohol during working hours, and were upheld by a University investigation in June 2020. Al Jazeera reports that a lack of any sanction is the most common result of the cases it investigated.The University would not share what action was being taken, in order to protect Thompson’s confidentiality.   

This came after a written complaint was made in 2017 by several staff from the History Faculty that Thompson was unfit to teach. No investigation was undertaken or action taken against Thompson at the time. 

As of October 2021, Dr Thompson is listed on the History Faculty website as the Sydney L. Mayer Associate Professor of Modern History. The website also says that Thompson is currently writing a biography of the relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his secretary William Short for the Oxford University Press.  

Students have commented on the report by Al Jazeera, including one who took to Twitter to say: “If you want to understand why I’ve discouraged numerous women applicants from coming to Oxford. If you want to understand why I set up a seminar series that (generally) excludes senior faculty. If you want to understand why I nearly quit my master’s degree”. 

Another historian wrote on social media that: 

“The most depressing thing about this Al Jazeera story is that both academics mentioned have been known as serial harassers and abusers for a long time, and nothing has happened, because they have been protected by their institutions and their peers.”

They went on to comment on their emotional reaction to the story: 

“Actually reading a story like this when you already knew about the featured accusations doesn’t make you feel relieved, or vindicated, at all – it makes you feel like shit, for not having done anything sooner, for not having been able to do anything other than pass on stories.”

In another tweet an alumnae tweeted: “It was gross and scary and everyone warned you to stay away from him at Friday events.” 

One of the students involved in the complaint, Mia Liyanage, told Al Jazeera: “We know that feeling when there’s a man in the room who, you know, is dangerous in some way”. 

She told The Oxford Student that she had found the complaints process long and difficult, and that she was worried that not enough action had been taken by the Faculty after the investigation upheld the complaints. 

“I submitted a formal complaint against Peter Thompson, and I did so because it became clear to me very quickly that a formal complaint was the only way to get any form of adequate recognition or response. Thompson has faced countless allegations and informal complaints over the years, and his harassment is an open secret, but complaints went unanswered because they did not adhere to the formal process.” 

“The formal complaints process is deeply flawed and discourages survivors from coming forward to report. It requires up to months of engagement with the process; an intimidating meeting with an investigator, who may not even be trained to handle such cases; and usually requires being named in your complaint.”

“The complaints process is not fit for purpose. My complaint, which was one of 7 concurrent formal complaints, was upheld on all counts – all 7 complaints were. However, the perpetrator remains in post with no sanctions that have not already been tried before and that have failed. Very clearly, the Faculty’s own decision has not been backed up with action. If that’s not a catastrophic failure of the system, I don’t know what is.”

“I went to the press because I was left with no other choice. The complaints process failed to act; the University and the Faculty that were supposed to protect me and others like me failed to act. We need a complete overhaul of the processes and system that allow perpetrators to remain, unchecked, in their positions and able to harm other students.” 

The University responded to the claims, stating that they cannot comment on individual cases for reasons of confidentiality. The statement also says that the University operates a no-tolerance policy on harassment, and that disciplinary action will be taken, where appropriate.  

“While we cannot comment on individual cases for reasons of confidentiality, the University of Oxford takes all allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct by staff extremely seriously. The University does not tolerate any form of harassment and is committed to promoting a positive environment where students and staff are treated fairly and with respect. All members of the University are expected to play a role in creating this environment and are always encouraged to raise any concerns or complaints. When concerns are raised, they are carefully and sensitively investigated and the University has a framework of support in place for staff and students who feel they have been subject to harassment. If complaints of sexual harassment or misconduct are upheld, the University will take disciplinary action where appropriate and will put in place steps aimed at ensuring the safety and wellbeing of our staff and students, which is always our first priority.”


Image Credit:  Metin Ozer on Unsplash