The Guardian is running a story today about sexual harassment in UK universities which they headline as being 'at epidemic levels'. It's topped off with as stock photograph of Oxford's Sheldonian Theatre which, given the flimsy factual content of the piece, I would say is malicious if not strictly defamatory.
Before I go any further let me say that I in no way wish to imply that sexual harassment in universities, or anywhere else, is anything other than a serious matter, which, if proven, should be dealt with in the way that the law stipulates and that organizations, including universities, have a duty to take complaints about harassment seriously (which I believe they do). I'll say more about this below, but first I just want to look at the facts.
Through a FoI request the Guardian has established that between the years 2011-12 and 2016-17 students made 169 allegations against academic and non academic staff and that a further 127 allegations were made by staff about another staff member. So let's put this in context, starting with the student complaints. There are roughly 2.25 million students at UK universities. Let's say for simplicity that we have 5 years of data (the 2016-17 year isn't finished yet so let's big the rate up by reducing the denominator a little). That gives us 11250000 person years and a rate of 1.5 student complaints per 100,000 person years. Is that a lot or a little?
Let's take something which we know has a high incidence rate among students - schizophrenia. Universities are not a cause of schizophrenia, but because the rate of first presentation is high among 20-24 year olds, lots of newly diagnosed schizophrenics are university students. Among 20-24 year-old UK males the incidence rate has been estimated to be between 20 and 45 per 100,000 person years. So compared to serious mental illness, the prevalence of allegations of sexual harassment on campus doesn't look particularly alarming. But, hang on, the Guardian says it is an epidemic, so what exactly is an epidemic?
Well that depends on the underlying base rate of the disease we are considering. But take for instance flu. In the UK a flu epidemic is declared when the rate of GP consultations about flu related symptoms reaches 1000 per 100,000 consultations. Now that is a lot.
Even if every single complaint by a student of sexual harassment was well founded it would still not be reasonable to call a rate of 1.5 per 100,000 person years an epidemic. This is fake news and all the worse for being much less transparent than the more obviously made up stories trumpeted by the Daily Hate Mail and the like.
OK, now for the caveats and anecdotes.
I haven't said anything about the staff on staff complaints. Does it happen? Yes, of course, but the Guardian presents no evidence whatsoever that rates of harassment are worse in universities than in any other working environment and it seems completely implausible to believe that they are. So this is, again, fake news.
In my 30 year career in academia I can honestly say that I've only ever known 2 cases of sexual harassment allegations in departments I've worked in (and none I should say in my present department). One was a staff on staff allegation about an unwitnessed incident said to have taken place at a private, off campus, social event in the home of the accused. A complaint was made, in the first instance to the HOD, who in my opinion quite correctly, declined to take the matter any further. It's completely unclear to me why a private off campus matter between two colleagues should be a legitimate concern of an employer. If what was alleged to have happened actually happened - and knowing both of the parties involved it is within the bounds of possibility - then that was a matter for them to sort out. Sometimes adults do and say stuff that is unwise. What was alleged broke no laws and was a bit embarrassing for those concerned but there was no reason for the employer to get involved.
The other case involved a member of staff who was 'overfamilar' with the female undergraduates. This basically amounted to spending a lot of time in the student bar and making some of the undergraduates feel 'uncomfortable'. I have no trouble believing that the combination of mid-life crisis, alcohol and lots of attractive young undergraduates could have led this individual to do and say things that were, in the circumstances, unwise. But though he might have been obnoxious - at least to some - he did not do anything illegal and there was no evidence that refusing whatever advances he might have made had any consequences. Everyone involved was an adult and they all chose to associate with each other. I believe that in this case the person concerned was warned to be more careful about how they conducted themselves.
Sometimes the boot is on the other foot. It is not unknown for staff to be sexually harassed by students or for students to offer sexual favours in return for grades. I've no personal experience of either, though a colleague who worked at a American university did once relate to me an 'A for a lay' story. Given the puritanical ethical codes of American universities my colleague immediately realized that he was in trouble. After rejecting the brazen offer, he immediately went to his Dean and reported what had happened. As it happened the Dean was realistic and advised my colleague never ever to have a meeting with a female student with his office door closed. He was also told that an allegation alone, whether or not it was true, would be sufficient to ruin his career.
Perhaps we need a longer term perspective on all of this. I'm struck how different things used to be when speaking to older colleagues who began their careers in the 1960s. So you think The History Man is fiction? You don't know the half of it!
Sex is everywhere. Unwanted sexual advances are a small part of life: everywhere. UK universities are nothing special. I expect better of the Guardian.