Since early September, a story of sexual harassment against staff and students at University College Dublin, characterised by the alleged lack of action taken by the university to address complaints, has been unraveling across social and mainstream media.
Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, a lecturer in STEM at UCD and considered one of Ireland’s best known academics, detailed her experience of workplace harassment by a professorial colleague, Hans-Benjamin Braun, to The Irish Times. Between May 2015 and July 2017, Ní Shúilleabháin would receive unsolicited emails and phone calls, and have her personal and professional meetings repeatedly interrupted by Braun who asked her out on dates and professed his “strong feelings” for her until she reported the incidents to a UCD human resources department.
Following multiple reports and a formal complaint Dr Ní Shúilleabháin felt dissuaded from making by UCD, Braun was told to no longer contact her. However, the harassment continued for another year until a Garda investigation began in 2017, a time which Dr Ní Shúillebháin described as nerve-wracking. The investigation culminated in court in late 2019 where Braun was charged with harassment under section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997.
University College Dublin maintains that it “cannot comment on any individual case” but that the college “takes serious note of the outcomes of these cases to improve the university’s policy and procedure.” It acknowledges the “otherwise avoidable stress” their practice caused Dr Ní Shúilleabháin.
In the aftermath of the story publishing, Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty spoke out in support of Dr Ní Shúilleabháin. She stepped down from UCD’s Gender Equality Action Group in 2019, “because I was not satisfied that the university’s policies on sexual harassment and discrimination were being implemented.” Her notice was given to UCD president Professor Andrew Deeks through email, one to which he did not reply.
Dr Marie Keenan, a lecturer at UCD, also spoke about the level of sexual harassment disclosed to her and Student Union officers by students, and the lack of action taken by the college when she raised the problem throughout 2016. She spoke of a sexual harassment experience survey students took of their peers in order to prompt action and alleged “the disturbing results of which they were “advised” were not to be made public.”
The story evolved from an account of an individual, to the exposure of a larger issue at UCD—one which appeared systemic. Following the revelations, UCD President Professor Deeks issued a college-wide statement: “on behalf of UCD I have apologised to Aoibhinn and to other colleagues and students who have suffered such experiences while in our care.”
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris consequently tweeted that he was appointing Dublin Rape Crisis Centre chief executive Noeline Blackwell to the Governing Authority of UCD. The Minister did so as a marker of his “intent to ensure issues regarding harassment and promotion of gender equality are represented at the highest level within our institutions.”
Ms Blackwell spoke of the efforts already being made at UCD to create a culture of zero-tolerance to sexual assault and harrassment, but the limited understanding of the issue “is a very damaging malfunction within university society and it is damaging to those who have been abused, the institution itself, and to all of us as a society.” Early 2020 saw the university launch an online Report and Support tool to allow for anonymous reporting of situations of bullying, harassment and sexual harassment. UCD has also made bystander intervention training, an initiative led by Dr Louise Crowley at University College Cork, mandatory for all incoming students.
Bystander Intervention training is available to all students at UCC and is built-in to the online orientation taken by first year students. A €5 million package to fund mental health supports and the implementation of the Framework for Consent was announced by Minister Harris last month, and UCC is to lead to the national roll-out of the Bystander Intervention Programme.