Staff and students condemn UCD sexual harassment procedures

Image Credit: Dominic Daly

While Ní Shuilleabháin’s case has put a spotlight on sexual harassment and assualt in UCD, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

On Saturday September 5th 2020, The Irish Times published an article exposing the two years of harassment Dr. Aoibheann Ní Shuilleabháin had suffered in UCD at the hands of a fellow professor. Dr. Ní Shuilleabháin is an Assistant Professor in the School of Mathematics & Statistics, where she is director of the BSc. Science, Mathematics & Education programmes in the College of Science. She was repeatedly harassed by a UCD professor over the course of two years, from May 2015 to July 2017.  While Ní Shuilleabháin’s case has put a spotlight on sexual harassment and assualt in UCD, it is only the tip of the iceberg.

In 2019 Hans-Benjamin Braun, a Professor of Theoretical Physics, was convicted under section 10 the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, 1997, and ordered not to contact Ní Shuilleabháin for five years. It was reported in The Irish Times that Braun would arrive at her office “in an angry and agitated state, repeatedly asking her out on dates, sending her unsolicited emails, [and] persistently [telephone] her”. At one point, Braun followed Ní Shuilleabháin to Cork, and was removed twice from the hotel in which she stayed.

According to the UCD Dignity and Respect - Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy; “The University may impose at any stage, precautionary measures on a student or employee who is alleged to have engaged in sexual harassment or sexual misconduct pending the outcome of a criminal or University investigation process. Any precautionary measure that is deemed reasonable by the University is not a penalty or a sanction and does not indicate that the University has concluded that the person concerned has committed a breach of discipline or a criminal offence. Rather these precautionary measures may be put in place in the best interests of all parties involved”. Despite alerting the university of her harassment, no action was taken in Ní Shuilleabháin’s case until the Gardaí became involved two years later. Ní Shuilleabháin lodged a formal complaint against the university.

Speaking to The University Observer, Prof. Kathleen James-Chakraborty said; “Aoibheann [Ní Shuilleabháin] is a brave and courageous human being but she is also somebody who already had a public presence in Ireland through her work as a science communicator. She already had a permanent job in UCD and is undoubtedly a valued member of the community. I think that put her in a very different position than if she did not have any professional credentials. No one should have to do that. The university should have processes that take care of us.”

On September 10th 2020 it was reported in The Irish Times that Prof. James-Chakraborty had left the UCD Gender Equality Action Group in October 2019, “because I was not satisfied that the university’s policies on sexual harassment and discrimination were being implemented”. Speaking to The University Observer she continued; “Saying you have a ‘zero tolerance’ policy means nothing when you are presented with evidence that says that your policy was not enforced at all. In [Ní Shuilleabháin’s] case we saw [...] the gap between policy and implementation. I don’t think that that case is unique. The gap between policy and implementation was highlighted again the following weekend in Marie Keenan’s piece. [...] The university sector should be challenged to do a lot better across the board”. 

“I think it’s an issue at other universities. I don’t know any of the details but I have no reason to believe that UCD is out on its own here. I think the most effective thing would be to have a national way of addressing the problem that all universities adopt. I think it involves working very closely with the Guards, and not just Student Counsellors or Student Advisors who are not professionally trained to address these issues”.

“Having a policy doesn’t mean the university is ‘zero tolerance”; speaking to The University Observer, former UCDSU Welfare Officer Melissa Plunkett mirrored James-Chakraborty’s sentiments. “In my experience, students have been either too frightened of having it recorded on their records to disclose to UCD staff, or they were dissuaded from making a complaint or discussing it again because of the way they were treated. All staff need training in what sexual harassment and assault is and how to appropriately manage a disclosure. So many students expressed disatisfaction as they felt their experiences were being dismissed by those they disclosed too, certainly true when discussing sexual harassment. Society would have us agree that it must have been a misunderstanding, surely they were just being friendly. UCD is not immune to this rhetoric and now is the time for us to stand up and say no more, enough is enough”.

“It's important that those who do not wish to make a formal complaint will be protected” comments Ruairí Power, UCDSU Welfare Officer. “Where the University is aware of unacceptable behaviour towards a student or staff member, there is a duty of care involved that necessitates quick action to protect those affected. It shouldn't take a report to the Gardaí or an official complaint for the University to intervene in an unsafe situation”.

“I have always expressed that I believe it is inappropriate for the Welfare Officer, who is essentially a student that has just graduated or is on leave for a year, to be dealing with such sensitive student cases” states Plunkett. “Designated staff members to deal with cases of sexual harassment or assault should be hired. It’s ridiculous for a university like UCD to expect the Welfare Officer in the Students’ Union to be a stop gap for students in need”. During her time as Welfare Officer, Plunkett states; “363 students disclosed to me that they were sexually harassed or assaulted. These incidents occurred between 2016 and 2019 with most taking place in 2018/19.”

It wasn’t the case that Plunkett didn’t make the university aware of the horrifying levels of sexual assault and harassment on-campus, and the subsequent lack of desperately needed professional support. Rather, her pleas were ignored; “For this statement to be heard by University management at various meetings and boards and for it to be ignored is not support”. The lack of action by the university in response to Plunkett’s call for better resources meant that in 2019/2020 the then Welfare Officer Úna Carroll was presented with the same issues; “There’s no designated person to deal with sexual assault or harassment. Unfortunately that issue is very prevalent. When you don’t have a designated person and you have a designated issue, you think that you, being the university, would say ‘hold on - we’re getting all these complaints about this one issue, [but] we don’t seem to have a specific resource outlined for this specific issue.’ Carroll continues; “A lot of it I dealt with it because I was the only person who could [...] It’s just so so stupid [...] a professional could have, but I didn’t have a professional that was available to me”.  

“I would have to say that [the hardest days of my job involved] young girls coming to me, telling me they have been raped” said Carroll. “[One] day I sat down with a student and she told me she had been assaulted and we went through the process and the procedures and her options, and the meeting ended. Later on that day another girl came by, and she said that ‘my friend went to you and said that she had told you about her situation and you really helped her... actually the same thing has happened to me. I would like to also chat to you about my options’... You like to think that these things don’t happen as often as they do...”. 

A working group was established in August 2019 to review the UCD Dignity and Respect - Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct Policy and Procedures, last reviewed in 2017. Speaking to The University Observer, Power said that UCDSU will “fully engage with the consultation process and ensure that students' voices are heard in this review on a wider level. Students and staff need to have confidence in the reporting process and feel safe in the knowledge that UCD will act quickly to protect them. The policy review is important, but it's crucial that it is enforced and doesn't act as ‘window dressing’".  

“I have significant problems with the way the policies were drawn up, with a committee that had no female academics, or academics with any serious scholarly expertise in any of the areas covered by the policies” comments Chakraborty. “Anybody who has been dealing with these cases officially, and has been covering them up, [should be] kicked-off campus permanently. I think there has to be an absolutely ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for discouraging complaints to come forwards and for covering-up harassment, [..] bullying, and sexual violence. I am not confident that heads are rolling over those issues and I won’t be confident about the way that UCD can handle these issues until some heads roll”. 

“We want transparency with how many reports are received and I’d love to see this information being discussed with the HEA and the DRCC” said Plunkett. “Let’s take this opportunity to ask for help and receive it with open arms. Stop hiding in shame in the shadows because that’s not what students (and staff) deserve”.

On Wednesday September 9th Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation, Research and Science appointed Dublin Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Noeline Blackwell to the UCD Governing Authority. In a statement sent to The University Observer, UCDSU “wholeheartedly [welcomed] the appointment of Noeline Blackwell to the Governing Authority of UCD and look forward to working with her”. James-Chakraborty echoed this by saying; “I was really pleased to see Minister Simon Harris putting somebody on the Governing Authority with serious expertise and credentials in how to address those issues [...] Universities in particular have the responsibility to be places of equity. We’re supposed to be about education, we’re not supposed to be about denying people chances.” 

At the time of publication, neither UCD communications nor UCD President Andrew Deeks had responded to a request for comment.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 24 hour helpline number is 1800 77 8888

UCDSU’s Welfare officer Ruairí Power is available at