I was harassed at Cambridge: the Dr Peter Hutchinson case is part of a wider problem | Danielle Bradford

The readmission of this former Trinity Hall lecturer shows that universities are failing in their duty of care to students

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m still in bed. My partner is downstairs, reading. We are house-sitting for some friends in a small village outside of Cambridge; it’s a nice break, given the hectic last few months of our lives. I roll over, check my phone, open Twitter. Oh no, I think: again?

It had just been reported that Trinity Hall college at Cambridge University had changed its agreement with former lecturer Dr Peter Hutchinson. Previously it had been agreed that he would not attend undergraduate social events and retire, after 10 women submitted complaints of sexual harassment against him (Hutchinson apologised for his “inappropriate” behaviour). Hutchinson has now had his dining rights as an Emeritus fellow reinstated, and is allowed to attend certain college events once more.

Cambridge has come under scrutiny this summer after a change in its definition of sexual harassment, so that it no longer included sexual misconduct. This change has been described as “unlawful” by legal experts and advocacy groups – and has resulted in at least two complaints being dropped. Shortly after this, I went public with my experience of the university’s disciplinary procedures after I made a complaint of sexual harassment against one of my supervisors, and spoke about the subsequent legal case I am taking against them.

As I read further about the case at Trinity Hall, I experienced a sense of deja vu, even though my experience was at a different college and I submitted my complaint to the university rather than my college. Decisions are shrouded in secrecy: the women who complained about Hutchinson weren’t informed of this change to Trinity Hall’s agreement, and similarly, I was denied access to the majority of the documentation pertaining to my case. These decisions suggest a lack of proper regard for student safety: Hutchinson is allowed back to certain events, just as the supervisor I complained about was allowed to continue teaching. Finally, women in the Hutchinson case were told not to discuss it with the student body, just as I was threatened with disciplinary action if I spoke about my case.

Since going public, I have received messages from about a hundred students – current and former students of Cambridge, and some from other universities – recounting similar experiences ranging from dissatisfaction with, to additional trauma from, the way that higher education institutions deal with complaints of sexual misconduct. The decision made this week by Trinity Hall echoes the decision made by Warwick University to reverse the 10-year campus ban placed on students who had sent messages about raping and assaulting women, including fellow students.

I wasn’t surprised to hear that Trinity Hall had changed its agreement with Hutchinson: it seems to me this isn’t an exception, but the rule. Hutchinson isn’t a one-off “bad apple”, the whole system is rotting.

Reports of sexual misconduct in UK higher education are on the rise. But that isn’t the scandal here – we want students to be reporting these incidences, so that they can be properly investigated and dealt with. The scandal is that that isn’t happening. At best, complaints procedures are lengthy, tiring and dissatisfying. At worst, they subject vulnerable students to revictimisation, retaliation and retraumatisation. There is often no provision for appealing the decision: in my case, I had no right of appeal at all.

Universities are failing in their duty of care to provide fair, transparent and accessible disciplinary procedures. They are failing victims largely because they can; thus far there have been no consequences to their institutional failures, which allows their fear of tackling the prolific issue of sexual misconduct on their campuses to dominate. In the Trinity Hall case, the college is an autonomous legal entity from Cambridge University, and Cambridge has denied any responsibility for the college’s decisions. Similarly, UK universities and colleges have not been held accountable for their inaction.

There exists no compulsory, standardised procedure for investigating sexual misconduct in higher education, and this gives institutions the freedom to create quasi-legal procedures often run by poorly trained, over-worked academics who are not qualified to investigate such complaints. Despite a claim by the Office for Students – the independent regulator of higher education in England – that it would intervene in “serious examples of universities failing to address these issues seriously”, this has yet to transpire, despite the major failings we’ve seen.

I wasn’t surprised when I read about what happened at Trinity Hall. Until there is legislation that outlines how these procedures must be run, universities will not be an environment in which victims can find justice.

• Danielle Bradford is a former student of Cambridge University. She is suing the university for discrimination


Danielle Bradford

The GuardianTramp

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