Louis Ashworth

Content Note: This article contains discussion of sexual harassment and sexual assault

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

On Monday, an email from Professor Graham Virgo landed in the inboxes of all returning Cambridge students. In it, the Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education appeared at first glance to clarify the options available to those who have experienced sexual misconduct or harassment at Cambridge.

However, the email told students very little that wasn’t already publicly known. In July, Varsity revealed that at least two formal complaints of sexual assault and rape have been dismissed. The two complaints, filed separately, were stopped in their tracks because of a decision by one chair of the University’s Disciplinary Committee to exclude sexual misconduct from the official definition of harassment in disciplinary procedures.

The chair’s decision cannot be reversed, and the two women whose complaints have been dismissed cannot appeal within University systems.

Since then, the loophole in the disciplinary procedures has been covered in both the Guardian and the BBC. Lawyers and women’s groups have branded the change ‘unlawful’, and a Queens’ junior research fellow and barrister has called for an “independent inquiry” into the change.

Meanwhile, recent Cambridge graduate Dani Bradford announced in July that she is suing the University for its handling of her sexual misconduct complaint from several years ago.

Virgo’s email contains the most information the University has said about the loophole in the disciplinary procedures up until now, and marks the first time that senior Cambridge administration has addressed the issue in direct communication with the University community, although this year’s incoming students did not receive Virgo’s email.

In full Professor Graham Virgo's letter to the University

Dear Student,

I am writing to you as a continuing student of the University to clarify the support and University reporting options available for University of Cambridge students as regards complaints of sexual misconduct or harassment.

Over the past few years students and staff at Cambridge have worked together to create a culture where we can discuss the impact of harassment and sexual misconduct. Yet we know that four out of five of our students won’t report formally when they experience harassment and sexual misconduct - and that often means they won’t come forward and ask for help either, which can result in their studies, health and well-being suffering.

Our anonymous reporting shows the main reasons why students don’t speak up is fear they won’t be believed, fear of friends’ reactions and the response from the perpetrator.

We are reflecting on what more we can do to raise awareness of the support the University and Colleges offer to our students who have been affected by harassment and sexual misconduct, where specialists like the Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor will listen, believe, offer emotional support and guide students through options for making a complaint.

We know too that we have more to do in building confidence in our reporting system so that all students trust that we will take action when you want us to do so.

With that in mind, I wish to emphasise that the University continues to investigate all cases of sexual misconduct or any form of harassment which has been reported to us. At Cambridge there is no place for behaviour that makes anyone feel unsafe.

However, the way that we deal with such cases has become more complex and what follows is a short summary of the present position.

Back in 2014, when CUSU published a report on sexual misconduct at the University, we began reviewing our disciplinary procedures to ensure that the system would be fit for purpose. Significant consultation began on what these procedures should look like and in late 2016 and again in 2018, external guidance was issued to universities, which confirmed what should be included in a good disciplinary procedure. This included being able to take action in any type of case of sexual misconduct, even those that could be referred to the police – this was a substantial change to the previous guidance which had been given to universities.

In the meantime, like many universities, we have used our existing student disciplinary rules to deal with such cases. These rules had been updated in 2015 to prohibit any form of harassment, with the intention that ‘harassment’ would cover many types of behaviour. The procedure in place at the time also required all cases to be proved beyond reasonable doubt – a very difficult level of proof to achieve where it is just one person’s word against another.

We have had several cases of harassment proved under this procedure, which included sexual behaviour. However, in the summer a case went forward to the disciplinary process and the person in charge of the hearing ruled that the behaviour in that case did not fall within the ordinary meaning of the word harassment. As such, it could not be investigated under a rule prohibiting harassment. There is no appeal mechanism against this decision. Due to the considerable energy and emotional impact of a Committee hearing on complainants, it was decided that it would be unfair to encourage complainants with similar cases to go through a disciplinary process that was likely to end in another such decision.

Our disciplinary system will change from 1 October, widening the definition of disciplinary offences explicitly to include sexual misconduct and abusive behaviour, as well as using a different standard of proof (on the balance of probabilities). These new rules will apply to any incident that happens after 1 October 2019 when the changes come into effect (read about this in detail here) but legally we can’t apply them to any incidents that happened before this date.

I would emphasise again that we will still investigate all cases of misconduct that occurred before 1 October and many of them will still be able to be charged using the harassment regulation, which can include sexual behaviour. For those that aren’t, there are other options to limit interaction with the other student and our Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor Amy O’Leary is here for any student who needs advice on their options.

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So, what did the email get right?

The email drew attention to systems designed to address sexual harassment or assault at Cambridge, including the University’s anonymous reporting system, Breaking the Silence, and the Sexual Assault and Harassment Advisor, Amy O’Leary. O’Leary, who was hired after a search for an advisor in September 2017, provides support to those that have experienced sexual assault before or during their time at Cambridge.

What it did and didn’t say about the changes to the Disciplinary Procedures

Virgo said the reformed disciplinary procedures will be introduced on 1st October, although this is fairly old news: after two periods of student consultation and two Senate House discussions, a series of proposed changes to the existing Student Disciplinary Procedures were accepted in June.

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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The reformed disciplinary procedures will see the standard of proof changed from the criminal (where an allegation must be proved ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’) to the civil standard, also known as the balance of probabilities.

What does the email miss about the disciplinary loophole?

As Virgo mentioned, the reformed disciplinary procedures, including the ‘balance of probabilities’ standard, will only be used for incidences that occur after 1st October. This means that even if the complaint is filed after 1st October, the existing disciplinary procedures will be used if the incident in question occurred prior to this date.

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However, because of the decision made by the Chair of the Disciplinary Committee in June, most sexual misconduct complaints concerning incidents which occurred before 1st October can no longer be taken forward. As a result, it is likely that cases of sexual misconduct which do not meet the criteria of the University’s restrictive definition of harassment will not lead to any disciplinary action against perpetrators. Virgo’s email is the first time the University has directly acknowledged the impact of the Chair’s decision.

The email references the loophole, but Virgo’s language clouds its significance. He wrote: “I wish to emphasise that the University continues to investigate all cases of sexual misconduct or any form of harassment which has been reported to us.”

In the context of campus sexual assault, the term ‘investigate’ carries weight. One might think of an ‘investigation’ into sexual misconduct as a lengthy process: the University gathers evidence, interviews those involved, and reaches a conclusion on the allegations, and any consequences they merit.

Virgo’s email uses the term “investigate” misleadingly. For one woman whose complaint was dismissed, this ‘investigation’, as Virgo describes it, consisted of a preliminary email exchange with the University Advocate. After sending the mandatory initial outline of the incident and request that a formal complaint process begin, their complaint was dropped completely. They were told their scheduled “investigative meeting” had been cancelled due to the chair's decision.

The sexual misconduct complaint itself never investigated, and no evidence was gathered. There were no consequences for the alleged perpetrator.


Mountain View

Cambridge is not adequately protecting students from sexual violence. Senior officials refuse to admit it.

In later communications with Varsity, a University spokesperson said: “I can confirm that all cases are investigated to understand whether they can be taken forward under the regulations. Those that can be, are fully investigated.” This distinction – between complaints being “investigated” via email to determine their viability before being quickly dismissed, and incidents being “fully investigated” – was left ambiguous in Virgo’s email. This paints an unrealistic picture of what has been happening since students left for the summer. 

Can students with complaints dating from before 1st October still take them forward?

Virgo also spoke of the “considerable energy and emotional impact of a Committee hearing on complainants” as justification for why “it was decided that it would be unfair to encourage complainants with similar cases to go through a disciplinary process that was likely to end in another such decision”. But the students whose cases were dismissed this Summer were not discouraged from pursuing a formal complaint process — they were explicitly told their cases would not be taken forward to a hearing.

What’s more, a University spokesperson told Cambridgeshire Live in July that if a student wished to challenge the dismissal of their case, they could file a complaint with the Student Complaints Service or launch a judicial review. However, the students whose cases were dismissed were explicitly told that a complaint to the Students Complaints Service would not necessarily mean their case would be reopened. Meanwhile, a judicial review is often a lengthy and expensive legal process, which is unlikely to be a viable option for many students.