Any ‘tolerance’ for abuse in colleges must end, says rape crisis chief

New UCD appointee Noeline Blackwell says efforts needed in all higher level institutions

Noeline Blackwell was appointed to the role by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris.

Noeline Blackwell was appointed to the role by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris.

 

Dublin Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Noeline Blackwell has said she will work to rid university life of the “malfunction” of tolerance for sexual abuse and harassment following her appointment to the governing authority of University College Dublin (UCD).

Ms Blackwell’s appointment to the role was announced on Wednesday by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris.

It follows Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháinn’s decision to speak out about a two-year period of harassment by a colleague at the university.

Since details of the case were published in The Irish Times on Saturday, UCD has apologised to Dr Ní Shúilleabháinn and pledged to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to sexual assault and harassment. Speaking after her appointment, Ms Blackwell said she will work to support policies to make that a reality.

“We’ve said over the years that it couldn’t possibly be the case; that the system was good given how few reports of sexual harassment all the colleges showed,” she said.

“Now, in large part thanks to Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, it is clear that this is something that is little understood in UCD as well as other colleges.

“Our perception in the Rape Crisis Centre is that it is a very damaging malfunction within university society and it is damaging to those who have been abused, the institution itself, and to all of us as a society.

“Hopefully I will be able to support efforts to rid the tolerance of sexual abuse and harassment that exists in all higher-level institutions.

“I think UCD is trying to achieve this already. I was out there last year at the launch of a new function for anonymous reporting so they were clearly working on various aspects.

“It is, though, going to take quite a lot of thought, time and resources to instigate a true zero-tolerance approach to sexual assault and harassment.”

Ms Blackwell said she was “very honoured” to be appointed to the role, and praised Mr Harris for his “determination to deal with the issues around sexual harassment and abuse in third-level colleges”.

“With the backing of the department, which is pushing this, we could see a much healthier college culture for all students and staff, and all those who are at risk of power abuse in colleges,” she said.

Mr Harris said the appointment of Ms Blackwell was a signal of his intent to tackle the issue at third-level institutions.

“Noeline’s appointment, I hope, signals my intent in this area,” he said. “I am conscious a lot of good work has been done by many universities in tackling sexual harassment and consent. But there is a lot of work to do.

“Noeline is an incredible advocate, a strong feminist and a wonderful person. I know she will be a powerful voice in demanding the change we need in society. Third level can be a real leader here.”

Hans Benjamin-Braun, who was professor for theoretical physics at UCD, was convicted in 2019 of harassing Dr Ní Shúilleabháin and ordered to stay away from her for five years.

UCD confirmed that Mr Braun left the university in March 2019 before his conviction. UCD declined to state the circumstances in which he left.