During Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s harassment, I was alerting UCD to problems on campus
From 2015, many students informed me of incidents of sexual violence and harassment
I was horrified to read of what my young colleague, Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, had endured. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
I woke early last Saturday morning, ready for coffee and newspapers to gently ease into the day. I have not been the same since.
Dumbfounded reading Una Mullally’s account in The Irish Times of Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin’s harassment by a senior academic in UCD, I was horrified to read of what my young colleague had endured. It also brought to mind the harassment experiences of students I have worked with over the years, and I wondered how they were doing reading this article.
What shook me most is that when Dr Ní Shúilleabháin was living through that nightmare ordeal, university management in UCD were being alerted to the problems not just of harassment, but also sexual violence, in UCD and were being asked to act.
I began teaching in UCD in 2002 and have been there since. It is a place and job I love.
Because of the courses I teach and my areas of expertise in sexual violence and abuse, some students have confided life experiences in me. I have always tried to support them in the direction of appropriate services.
From 2015 onwards a new problem was added to the list of student disclosures: this time it involved sexual violence and harassment during and related to their college experiences.
With this problem happening in my place of work I felt compelled to alert my colleagues in UCD management to what I was hearing and to offer to help. Here I will focus on my efforts in one academic year.
In September 2015, one young former student, then an officer of the students’ union, came to me for advice about the level of sexual harassment and violence being disclosed to her.
The students’ union was running a consent campaign that year to persuade university management to run mandatory consent classes for all students. They were not successful in their efforts.
The students also campaigned for a properly funded counselling service, or at least a funded agreement with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, to respond to students in crisis following sexual violence and harassment. They were unsuccessful in that too.
And the students undertook a survey on the extent of the problem; the disturbing results of which they were “advised” were not to be made public.
In February 2016, having mentioned my concerns previously to two senior members of management at an informal gathering, I decided to act more formally. I wrote to a senior member of university management expressing my concern about what I called “sexual violence on campus”. I offered my assistance.
The reply informed me my email was passed on to a second senior member of management who would contact me directly “if he wishes to avail of your kind offer”. I did not hear another word about my concerns or my offer.
As the campaign took a huge personal toll on the courageous young officers of the students’ union, I could see them being slowly worn down by the politics of power relations that were in play. This troubled me, and I decided to try again.
In April 2016, I asked for a meeting with another senior manager to discuss my continued worries. Here I not only relayed my concerns about the problems of sexual violence and harassment on campus, but added my disquiet about how the young officers of the students’ union were being treated when they raised concerns. This they did at every committee on which they had representation.
I got the impression this senior manager – while courteous – thought I was exaggerating. He was also keen to point out the ongoing system improvements: that the dignity and respect policy was being rewritten, and that there was a dignity and respect box in the Tierney administration building that could receive students’ disclosures in writing if they wished.
My alarm at this and how disclosures were to be managed was dismissed. However, I left with hope that maybe he would take action.
Nothing of that meeting was ever followed up with me again. The dignity and respect box seemed to disappear after the refurbishment of the Tierney Building. An online anonymous reporting tool was launched in UCD in 2019.
Do not forget the past
This week, the Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris, announced his determination to apply a zero-tolerance approach to the problem of sexual harassment and sexual violence in Irish universities. I am relieved at this. I am also relieved that the Minister is increasing the powers of the Higher Education Authority to monitor compliance with the new innovations. His intention to appoint Noeline Blackwell, director of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, to the governing authority of UCD is also a commendable and decisive move.
However, I would respectfully like to share two further thoughts with our new Minister. First Minister, in creating the future please do not forget the past. Let us not forget those students and academics who are still suffering, many in silence, from these grave personal and institutional injustices. What mechanisms are you putting in place to address their hurt?
Second, as a man could you think about why some men in authority don’t get it when women tell them they are frightened out of their wits of being assaulted or killed by a harasser?
Dr Marie Keenan is an associate professor in the School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice, University College Dublin