University ramps up response to sexual harassment

Sexual harassment has increasingly been an issue in the spotlight globally in recent years following high-profile cases of sexual harassment in the media and the rise of the #MeToo movement, and it has also been a focus in Australia with last year’s publication of the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces, which found sexual harassment “extremely prevalent”.

National statistics show that 639,000 Australian women have experienced sexual assault by males in the past 10 years while rates of sexual assault rose by more than 30% in that time.

The higher education sector has also faced intense scrutiny on this issue following the publication of the National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities by the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2017.

Two years ago, Australian higher education institutions were commended by the federal Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency for adopting commitments to preventing sexual assault and harassment on campus. However, it warned that the challenge ahead was to ensure measures are being put into practice on the ground and that capacity was being developed.

Some universities are forcibly responding to the challenge, including the University of Adelaide which has released a 96-page report outlining how it intends to tackle the “spectrum of sexual assault and sexual harassment behaviours”.

“The university will make changes to its policies, processes and culture as part of a series of measures to improve the handling of reports of sexual assault, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour, as recommended by an independent report,” said university Vice-Chancellor Professor Peter Høj.

External consultants

Høj said the report – Towards a Safer and More Inclusive Culture: University of Adelaide ICAC response – was commissioned from external consultants KPMG Australia as part of the university’s work to address recommendations made in August 2020 by the state’s Independent Commissioner Against Corruption (ICAC).

The KPMG report contains 22 recommendations that relate mainly to improvements needed in the handling of cases for staff, including changes to processes, policies and culture.

Høj said the university would adopt all the report’s recommendations, and listed five for immediate action.

These include establishing an ethics and integrity training scheme for all staff, along with a unit where students and staff could report sexual assault, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour.

In addition, the university’s human resources function and capabilities would be reviewed along with a streamlining of the policy framework for sexual assault, sexual harassment and misconduct.

“Sexual assault, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour are found all across our society – and Australia’s higher education sector is no different,” Høj said.

“But this behaviour is not acceptable and there is no place for it here at the University of Adelaide. The only acceptable number of cases is zero.”

The KPMG report found underlying problems with the university’s culture, with some students and staff saying they did not feel safe to report sexual assault, sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviour, Høj said.

“As vice-chancellor, I want to take this opportunity to apologise to victims of sexual assault, sexual harassment or other inappropriate behaviour occurring at the university,” he said.

“While we recognise that not all of our students and staff will necessarily feel the same way, or have had the same experience, we are listening to these voices in our community, and they are telling us we need to do better. These issues need to be addressed. We will and must do better.”

The university council made a formal apology to victims of sexual assault and endorsed the decision of university management to “unreservedly accept all of the report’s 22 recommendations”.

The new integrity unit will have the authority to investigate misconduct reported by students and staff, according to the university’s rules, policies and, for staff, conditions of employment.

Chair of the university’s ICAC response steering committee, Professor Katrina Falkner, said the new unit would provide victims with a single, continuous point of contact while working with them to ensure a “victim-centric approach”, providing tailored support options and keeping them updated on the progress of any investigation.

“The establishment of an integrity unit, and revising our policies and processes, will bring positive and lasting changes, helping our students and staff to feel safe and supported in making a report,” Falkner said.

“This will enable us to build a stronger, more supportive culture for the benefit of everyone at our university.”

Falkner will also head a new ‘implementation working group’ to assist with the adoption of the report’s recommendations.

Høj said the changes needed to be led by example “from the top” and would require every member of the university community to “understand and support what was being done”.