Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin: Two years of harassment at UCD

Aoibhinn Ni Suilleabhain, academic, TV presenter and former Rose of Tralee. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / The Irish Times

One of Ireland's best known academics was repeatedly harrassed by a professor at UCD over the course of two years

She was frightened of being alone on campus and unnerved almost to the point of abandoning her successful academic career. This was the reality of workplace harassment for one of Ireland’s best-known academic figures.

Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin – a broadcaster, lecturer in University College Dublin (UCD) and role model to young women in maths and science – was repeatedly harassed by a professor at UCD over the course of two years.

Her ordeal ended in a court case in late 2019 when the man, Prof Hans-Benjamin Braun, 58, was charged with harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997. The court heard the harassment took place between May 9th, 2015, and July 7th, 2017, and issued an order barring the professor from contacting Ní Shúilleabháin for five years.

Ní Shúilleabháin is now speaking out about her experience, which she says left her living in fear, in order to draw attention to the harassment of female university academics and students on university campuses in Ireland. She says it’s vital that victims of harassment are encouraged to report their experiences.

The incidents she experienced included Braun turning up to her office in an angry and agitated state, repeatedly asking her out on dates, sending her unsolicited emails, persistently telephoning her, arriving unannounced at her meetings, and on one occasion getting a student to phone her to inform her that he was telling nurses in a hospital he was in that he loved her.

The incidents left her frightened, and negatively impacted on both her personal and professional life.

Ní Shúilleabháin had no professional relationship with the professor. She repeatedly reported the incidents to a UCD human resources department, furnishing them with detailed notes of various incidents, before eventually taking the matter outside of the university – at the college’s suggestion – and reporting it to the Garda. The harassment lasted for two years after her first bringing it to the attention of the university.

Ní Shúilleabháin felt dissuaded from making a formal complaint against the professor

Gardaí in Donnybrook investigated, culminating in the 2019 court case. Ní Shúilleabháin did not attend but was informed of the outcome. She declined to make a victim impact statement at the time due to concerns for her privacy, but in recent months has felt her experience could help instigate what she feels is much-needed cultural change on campuses across the country in addressing harassment and supporting those who have been harassed.

She also made a formal complaint to UCD after contacting the Garda. Although early in her ordeal, lodging such a complaint was characterised to her as an arduous process; in the end, for her, it amounted to one phone call from an external investigator.

Ní Shúilleabháin felt dissuaded from making a formal complaint against the professor. When The Irish Times put it to UCD that she felt dissuaded, the university replied that it would not comment on an individual case.

At one point, Braun travelled across the country and turned up at a hotel in Cork demanding to see her after Ní Shúilleabháin had mentioned on social media that she was on a weekend break with female friends. The professor was removed by gardaí from the hotel twice, on two consecutive days, and Ní Shúilleabháin received a Garda escort out of Co Cork.

Ní Shúilleabháin spent the week in the run-up to her wedding fearful that Braun would contact her or turn up. Before becoming engaged to her now husband, she moved into a new home alone, and kept a crowbar close by for safety.

In February 2020, UCD launched a “report and support” website where students, staff or visitors to UCD can report bullying, harassment and sexual harassment anonymously.

Asked to contribute to this article, Tristan Aitken, UCD’s director of human resources, told The Irish Times that the college “cannot comment on any individual case” and that “UCD had a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment”.

“It takes every report of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct, in any form, very seriously.”

He confirmed that Braun “is no longer employed by the university”. Aitken said the university’s dignity and respect policy and procedure was last reviewed in 2017, “and is further currently under review”. He said the university “takes serious note of the outcomes of these cases to improve the university’s policy and procedure”.

In correspondence with Ní Shúilleabháin, UCD HR has acknowledged that delays and a lack of communication of some of their HR procedures, which they characterised as “failings”, caused Ní Shúilleabháin, in their words, “otherwise avoidable distress”. It has since involved Ní Shúilleabháin in a review of policy and procedures, at her request.

Ní Shúilleabháin began working in UCD in autumn 2014 on a temporary assignment. When her PhD was completed, she was contracted as an assistant lecturer. The harassment began in 2015 when Braun interrupted a lunch meeting to discuss an outreach event, saying that he hoped they would be working on it at the same time. He then emailed her about the event, called the “Pint of Science”, saying he could ask the organisers to put them on the same night.

“I was completely bewildered and baffled by this, and had never had a conversation with him about it,” Ní Shúilleabháin says.

The following week, on a Thursday in May 2015, Braun arrived unannounced to her office and asked her on a coffee date. “I wasn’t expecting it, so I just said, ‘Well, I’m actually seeing somebody’ – which was a lie at the time.”

“He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she says. “So he was there really trying to convince me that we had to go for coffee together at some unknown point. I was stuck behind my desk . . . So I just actually put my two hands on the desk and I said: ‘I would like you to leave my office now.’ So he left.”

She phoned a colleague who told her to report it to HR. “And I said: ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’”

The following day, Braun turned up at her office again. “He barged in . . . dropped his umbrella, I think he took off his jacket. He was drenched. And he just started pacing back and forth and saying things like, you know, ‘You haven’t been honest with me, I’ve been very honest with you about my feelings, I don’t do this very often, I don’t ask people out, you have lied basically and you haven’t been honest about how you feel about me.’ He was really in a frantic state.”

Braun eventually left her office, leaving Ní Shúilleabháin shaken. That day, Ní Shúilleabháin was travelling to Cork for “a girls’ weekend”, and resolved to report the incidents to HR the following Monday.

But that weekend, when she was in a hotel in west Cork, the receptionist rang to say a man was in the lobby with a bunch of flowers asking to see her. Ní Shúilleabháin asked the receptionist to say she was out, but the receptionist came back to say: “He doesn’t believe me because your car is outside.”

I asked the dean to walk with me to my office so I wouldn’t be on my own at any point

“I was really worried at that point,” says Ní Shúilleabháin. “Oh my god, he knows my car.”

The hotel called the Garda, who led the professor away. Later that evening, Braun rang Ní Shúilleabháin’s mobile number, which she had not given him. She hung up when she heard his voice.

After Braun turned up at the hotel again the following morning, the Garda was called again. Ní Shúilleabháin’s party were given a Garda escort out of the county, “which was just incredibly stressful . . . The whole weekend was.”

Back on campus on Monday morning, Ní Shúilleabháin met the dean of her school and reported the incident to HR, who advised her to work from home for a few days. “I asked the dean to walk with me to my office so I wouldn’t be on my own at any point.”

It was May 2015. In the months and years that followed, Ní Shúilleabháin would have multiple interactions with HR in UCD, keeping detailed accounts of every incident.

At one point, she received a phone call from one of the professor’s students, “who was giving me an update on his health in case I wanted to know – that he was doing fine, the professor was doing fine in hospital and he was telling all the nurses that he was in love with me. I had never met that student before. I told him not to contact me, that I didn’t want to know anything about Prof Braun . . .

“And so in my mind, this was all going to get resolved, because the right people knew about it . . . And then he eventually came back to UCD again.” This, says Ní Shúilleabháin was “really where the system started to break down”.

Ní Shúilleabháin was told by university staff that Braun had been told not to contact her. However, in December 2015 he emailed her “to find someone who could take over his fourth year advanced quantum mechanics module. Now, as much as I love the sound of advanced quantum mechanics, it’s not something I can lecture in. So it seemed like an incredibly odd email to send me of all people. So I didn’t respond.” She forwarded it on to HR.

The following week, Braun turned up at her office again. She asked him to leave, which he did, and she reported the incident to HR again.

The incidents continued, ranging in severity, including Braun staring at her while she held meetings with other colleagues in open-plan settings on campus, and repeatedly turning up to her office.

“I told him that he was asked not to contact me. I asked him to leave my office. He didn’t leave my office. And then he started to go on that this year had been very tough for him, that he had developed really strong feelings for me, and he said: ‘I don’t want you to be scared of me’, that this was all a misunderstanding.”

In March 2016, over the course of one weekend, she received 25 phone calls in a row, followed by 19 phone calls the following day. “It was particularly distressing because I was at a work gig on the Saturday and I was really afraid that he would turn up at it. He didn’t.”

The following week he approached her again in the university while she was meeting a colleague. “He was lingering by kind of peering around a corner, which was quite creepy, then he approached me, and I just said: ‘I’m in a meeting and you’re not allowed speak to me.’ Again, I told HR.”

In July 2016, Braun approached her again during a meeting. “It was just exhausting.” Later that day, he came to her office again. She phoned her colleague in an office close by, who told the professor to stay away from her office.

According to Ní Shúilleabháin, around this time Braun had received a written warning from a senior university faculty member. “Nothing happened then for a couple of months, so maybe the warning did work at some point,” Ní Shúilleabháin says.

Even if something didn’t happen, you were always on edge wondering if it would happen

However, in January 2017 he approached her again while she was meeting a colleague for coffee on campus. “He was queueing for coffee. I didn’t want to go near him, so I kind of stayed away at the doors so my colleague could see me, but Prof Braun saw me and he walked past me, kind of almost expecting to bump into me on purpose, and that didn’t happen because I was trying to keep myself very small. So he turned around, came back 30 seconds later and just put out his hand and said ‘happy new year’, and I just said: ‘No, go away.’ Thankfully my colleague was coming, so I was able to go and meet him.

“It sounds very innocuous, but I guess after all of the repeated incidents you just get very nerve-racked.”

Although Ní Shúilleabháin says Braun was repeatedly told by university officials not to contact her, he continued to intrude on conversations and meetings on campus, as well as turning up at her office.

In May 2017, she locked herself into her office when he arrived at the door, “He kept knocking and then he eventually left. When he left, I was kind of frozen, actually. I didn’t know what to do.”

It had been more than two years since the harassment began, and Ní Shúilleabháin decided “this has to stop”.

“I was really just getting afraid with all of it, because even if something didn’t happen, you were always on edge wondering if it would happen, wondering when he would next turn up at a meeting, or at your office. The mental energy that it took, I really felt that it impacted on me personally, but on my professional work as well because you just couldn’t concentrate properly for all that time.”

After yet another complaint to HR, Ní Shúilleabháin says a person working in the HR department said her “best bet” was to go to the Garda. Ní Shúilleabháin asked the HR worker to arrange an appointment with gardaí, which they did, and a detective was assigned to the case.

“I was getting married at this point. I was really, really, really afraid that he would turn up on my wedding day. I got a few more phone calls from him, in July of that year, July 2017, in the run-up to my wedding – one I answered because I didn’t recognise the number . . . I blocked all the numbers after that, made a statement to the guards.”

The Garda investigation culminated in a court case in late 2019. An order barring Braun from contacting Ní Shúilleabháin was issued by the court. She eventually made a formal complaint to UCD about the harassment in August 2018, and while she was on maternity leave in 2019 she received an email from UCD saying Braun was leaving the university.

That’s why I wanted to talk about it. The first thing we need to do is recognise that it’s a problem

Following her formal complaint, Ní Shúilleabháin received one phone call from an external investigator. “I was expecting great things from this formal complaint because it had been bigged up to me that it was going to be a very arduous process,” Ní Shúilleabháin says. The investigator did her job well, according to Ní Shúilleabháin, but she says she expected more. “She just said, ‘Yeah, the complaint is valid and we uphold it.’ And that was that.

“It was very disappointing within UCD that this had been hyped up to me as something that was going to be very, very difficult for me to do, but it wasn’t at all in the slightest.”

When contacted by The Irish Times to contribute to this article, Braun said he had no comment to make.

Today, Ní Shúilleabháin says that while there is growing awareness regarding harassment and other issues for students on campuses, “we also need to make sure those same supports are there for staff, and particularly early-career researchers. Those are the people who are on precarious contracts, temporary contracts, who are maybe doing a post-doc which is one or two years, who might be very afraid to rock the boat because it will impact, potentially, on them getting another contract.

“That’s why I wanted to talk about it. The first thing we need to do is recognise that it’s a problem, and after that we need to look at what are the many ways we can address it.

“I’m not saying that I’m going to change the system. There’s a lot of people working on that. But I actually just think being more open about it and speaking about these incidents is really important because we have to stop sweeping them under the carpet. That carpet is getting very, very bulgy now.”