A week of bad publicity over its handling of sexual harassment has pushed University College Dublin (UCD) into a belated reckoning. Academic Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin's account of two years of harassment by a colleague, and in particular her criticism of UCD for insufficient support, highlighted a lack of safeguards and structures but also described an organisation that has yet to make the cultural adjustment required to confront the problem.
The dimensions of that problem should come as no surprise to the university authorities. A study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2012 found that 48 per cent of Irish girls and women aged 15 and older had been sexually harassed. Earlier this year, the NUIG Sexual Experiences Survey of Higher Education Institutes found that 41 per cent of woman had changed their own behaviour to avoid the person who had sexually harassed them. These and countless other studies suggest an epidemic of sexual harassment and misconduct in the sector.
No woman should feel she must publicly air her experience in order for sexual harassment in any institution to be taken seriously, but Dr Ní Shúilleabháin's testimony has already brought some positive results. Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has appointed Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, to the governing authority of UCD. University president Andrew Deeks apologised to Dr Ní Shúilleabháin and announced a series of measures – some of which had been agreed in July – to improve UCD's handling of harassment. Prof Deeks spoke of a "zero tolerance" approach and a "core procedural shift" that would give UCD the option of investigating allegations without a formal complaint being made.
If these events result in better policies at UCD, important progress will have been made. But adopting policies is one thing; implementing them is another. The only way to create an environment that gives women the confidence to report is to demonstrate that the organisation sees the protection of its staff as its first priority.