Louis Ashworth

Content Note: This article contains mentions of sexual harassment and assault.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources:

Just over three weeks ago, campaigners against sexual harassment at Cambridge were celebrating. The University had announced that it had decided to adopt changes to the Student Disciplinary Procedures that were seen as a clear step towards tackling sexual misconduct at the University.

But leaked emails seen by Varsity suggest that just 10 days earlier a decision was made by a single academic that risks leaving some students who have experienced sexual misconduct unable to pursue University disciplinary complaints under the current procedures.

From 1st October, following the passing of a Regent House ballot in June, the burden of proof required under the Student Disciplinary Procedures will be changed from the criminal to the civil standard of proof, also known as the ‘balance of probabilities’. The changes will also see sexual misconduct explicitly defined as a breach of the rules of behaviour for students.

Explained What will the new Student Disciplinary Procedures change from October 1st?

The new Student Disciplinary Procedures will introduce a number of changes to the way student complaints are dealt with from 1st October.

Firstly, Rules of Behaviour will be established that explicitly state that a registered student must not “engage or attempt to engage in physical misconduct, sexual misconduct or abusive behaviour: towards a member of the collegiate University community; or towards anyone within the precincts of the University or during the course of a University or College activity.”

Secondly, a new full time role of Investigating Officer will be created, who will replace the University Advocate and Proctors in conducting investigations into student complaints. Currently the University Advocate is an academic at the University.

Finally, although adopted in a separate vote from the new Student Disciplinary Procedures, the burden of proof for complaints will also change from 1st October. Cambridge had been one of only a handful of UK universities to use the criminal standard of proof, which requires that student disciplinary cases be proven ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. A system of 'balance of probabilities' will be used from October, which, according to the University, "requires a determination that something is more likely than not to have happened, the decision must be supported by evidence, and it is a higher standard than simply believing something has happened." This is the standard of proof used by most employers and other professional organisations in the UK.

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However, this new system will only work prospectively, meaning complaints to the University made by anyone who was, or is, sexually assaulted or harassed before this coming October will be assessed under the old procedures, even if complaints are filed after this date.

Jenny argued the decision could allow the student who allegedly assaulted her to continue “causing immeasurable harm”

A recent change to the way the old procedures are interpreted, made by a single academic in June, could mean students who file complaints relating to sexual misconduct that occurred, or occurs, prior to 1st October are unable to pursue a complaint against their attacker through University procedures.

 

The change will have no effect on cases where the reported incident of sexual misconduct occurs after 1st October, but may impact others who report incidents which occurred, or occur, prior to that date. Varsity spoke to one student whose complaint will not be taken forward due to this decision.

Jenny*, a student who wishes to remain anonymous, was told several months after first making a formal complaint about being sexually assaulted by a fellow student that her complaint would no longer be taken forward due to this decision.

Last year students tied ribbons to Senate House, in solidarity with those who have experienced sexual harassmentFelix Peckham

She labelled the decision “absolutely insane”, arguing that it could allow the student who allegedly assaulted her to continue “causing immeasurable harm”.

Varsity understands that on 20th June, the Chair of the Discipline Committee decided the word ‘harassment' within the University’s General Regulations for Discipline was being interpreted too widely. 

There are currently four chairs of the Discipline Committee. The University did not respond when asked which of the four ruled on the decision.

According to the leaked emails, the Chair, who is an academic at the University, ruled at a case management hearing that the clause covering harassment "is designed for […] cases of harassment within the normal meaning of that term”. 

In full How the University defines harassment and sexual misconduct

The University’s definitions for harassment and sexual misconduct are outlined in the “Code Of Conduct For Students In Respect Of Harassment And Sexual Misconduct”. It outlines the following:

The University defines harassment as single or repeated incidents involving unwanted or unwarranted conduct towards another person which it is reasonable to think would have the effect of (i) violating that other’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for that other.

Harassment may be verbal, psychological, or physical, in person or via a virtual platform, or through other methods of contact. Harassment may occur in the course of an academic, sporting, social, cultural, or other activity either within the Precincts of the University or elsewhere in the context of a person’s membership of the University, or in circumstances where the victim of the harassment is a member, officer, or employee of the University or a College.

Under this Code of Conduct unacceptable behaviour, whether intentional or not, can take a variety of different forms. The following descriptions are not exhaustive, but give an indication of the types of behaviour which the University considers to be unacceptable:

  • making sexually offensive comments about dress or appearance, the display or distribution of sexually explicit material, or demands for sexual favours;
  • engaging in harassment on the grounds of a person’s sexuality (or assumptions about a person’s sexuality) including making derogatory homophobic, transphobic, or biphobic remarks or jokes aimed at a particular person, offensive comments relating to a person’s sexuality, refusal to acknowledge a person’s gender or identity, or threats to disclose a person’s sexuality to others;
  • making offensive references to a person’s race, ethnicity, skin colour, religion or nationality, dress, culture, background or customs which have the effect of ridiculing or undermining an individual or fostering hatred and/or prejudice towards individuals or particular groups;
  • ignoring, disparaging, or ridiculing a person because of mistaken assumptions about their capabilities, or making offensive reference to an individual’s appearance, in the context of their disability;
  • controlling or coercive behaviour, such as pressure to subscribe to a particular political or religious belief.

Online harassment may take the form of intimidating, offensive, or graphic posts on social media sites or chat rooms, or communications by email, text, or instant messaging.

Sexual misconduct includes the following, whether or not within a sexual or romantic relationship, including where consent to some form of sexual activity has been given and then withdrawn, or if consent has been given on previous occasions:

  • sexual intercourse or engaging in a sexual act without consent;
  • attempting to engage in sexual intercourse or engaging in a sexual act without consent;
  • sharing private sexual materials of another person without consent;
  • kissing without consent;
  • touching inappropriately through clothes without consent;
  • inappropriately showing sexual organs to another person;
  • repeatedly following another person without good reason;
  • making unwanted remarks of a sexual nature.

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The Chair apparently concluded that since the University’s ‘Code of Conduct for Students in Respect of Harassment and Sexual Misconduct’ distinguishes between ‘harassment’ and ‘sexual misconduct’, sexual misconduct allegations should not fall under the definition of harassment. 

The University defines harassment as: “single or repeated incidents involving unwanted or unwarranted conduct towards another person which it is reasonable to think would have the effect of (i) violating that other’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for that other.”


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Sexual misconduct is not explicitly defined but a list of examples that constitute sexual misconduct are given in the Code of Conduct, ranging from “sexual intercourse or engaging in a sexual act without consent” to “kissing without consent”, “touching inappropriately through clothes without consent” and “making unwanted remarks of a sexual nature”. 

Jenny has since been explicitly told that, as a consequence of this decision, her complaint of sexual misconduct cannot be taken forward because there is no other regulation within the General Regulations for Discipline which deals with sexual misconduct.

Under the old disciplinary procedures, the alleged action must be found to be both against the University’s Code of Conduct and an offence under the General Regulations for Discipline. The General Regulations for Discipline only refer to harassment and do not mention sexual misconduct. Therefore, according to the leaked emails, this ruling means sexual misconduct complaints are not understood to be a violation of the regulations.

The University did not respond when asked which Chair of the Discipline Committee made the ruling.

The Chair’s decision appears to be a departure from the understanding over the past three years that cases of sexual misconduct fall under the definition of harassment. 

The decision also looks to be in conflict with the “explanatory notes” within the University’s ‘Procedure On Student Harassment And Sexual Misconduct’, a document currently available on the Office for Student Conduct, Complaints and Appeals (OSCCA) website which states: “For the purposes of the University’s General Regulations for Discipline, a definition of harassment is set out in Regulation 6 [..] This definition covers acts of sexual misconduct.” 

In full Regulation 6 of the University’s General Regulations for Discipline

The University's General Regulations for Discipline state:

“Whereas it is the duty of the University to maintain good order and discipline within the University:

[...]

6. (a) No member of the University shall engage in the harassment of:

    (i)a member, officer, or employee of the University or a College; or
    (ii)any other person where the harassment takes place either within the Precincts of the University or in the course of a University or College activity.

(b)Harassment shall include single or repeated incidents involving unwanted and unwarranted conduct towards another person which is reasonably likely to have the effect of (i) violating that other’s dignity or (ii) creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating, or offensive environment for that other.”

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The decision cannot be appealed by the University. Like an independent judicial system, the Discipline Committee is appointed by the University but is not under the control of the central University administration. 

For Jenny, the decision to not take forward the complaint cannot be appealed directly, however she does have the option to make a complaint about the University’s handling of her case under the Student Complaint Procedure. Any student whose case is not taken forward would have the same option.

Students who experience sexual misconduct from someone within their own college may also make a formal complaint under their college’s disciplinary procedures. 


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Mountain View

Cambridge adopts ‘balance of probabilities’

Asked about the potential outcomes of the Chair’s decision, Sarah d’Ambrumenil, Head of OSCCA, said that the University could not comment on individual cases.

D’Ambrumenil stressed that each case is taken on its own merits and that case management hearings are explicitly intended to only rule on the specific case they are looking at. However, she conceded that there is nothing preventing previous cases influencing future cases. 

She explained that outcomes from individual cases are taken into account when advising complainants about likely outcomes from complaint processes. This means that support staff may now be less likely to encourage students to follow through with complaints of sexual misconduct. This appears to be the case for the recent reinterpretation of the term “harassment".

For Jenny, the Chair’s ruling felt especially jarring considering its proximity to the well publicised decision to adopt changes to the Student Disciplinary Procedures from October.

"How can it be that they are about to enact this quote unquote radical new policy that is absolutely going to change everything and make it much easier for people, and at the same time one single academic can literally change the entire game with the click of [their] fingers?

“They have completely taken away all agency from me”, Jenny said. “Defamation is still in the harassment definition. So if I complain about [my harasser] I can get in trouble, but he can't get in trouble for anything he has done, which is absolutely insane.

"It's all so ambiguous [...] the only kind of solid fact in any of it is that all those people are hung out to dry and left with no options."

"Students shouldn't make any assumptions about what the University can do", D’Ambrumenil emphasised.

D’Ambrumenil said “[OSCCA] continue to encourage more students to come forward and report any incidents or behaviour that they believe breach the University regulations”.

She continued: “It would be very dependent upon the individual student circumstances as to the likely actions that can take place, but students shouldn't make any assumptions about what the University can do.”

The University did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Two of the chairs of the Discipline Committee decline to comment on the decision. The two other chairs did not respond to a request for comment.

*The name of the student has been changed.

Updated 26 July 2019: This article was updated to correct an error that stated the case management hearing occurred on the 26th June rather than the correct date of the 20th June.

If you are affected by any of the issues raised in this article, the following organisations provide support and resources:

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