University of Sussex publishes independent report into domestic violence case
Vice-Chancellor apologises to former student and says report recommendations will be implemented
The University of Sussex has today (17 January 2017) published a report on the findings of the independent review into the institution’s handling of a recent domestic violence case. The case involved a former Sussex student, Allison Smith, and a former member of staff, Lee Salter.
Conducted by Durham University’s Professor Nicole Westmarland, the review was commissioned by the University of Sussex’s new Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Tickell on his first day in the post on 1 September 2016. The purpose of the review was to identify poor and good practice in the University’s handling of the case, and to make recommendations to improve future policy and practice.
The report has concluded there were three areas of good practice in relation to two members of staff. These were:
- A senior member of staff provided weekly emotional support, from the time of the disclosure until the trial, to Ms Smith. The support is on-going and is described in the report as ‘subtle, unassuming and discreet’; with the member of staff demonstrating a ‘good understanding of the dynamics of domestic violence’.
- The same (above) member of staff proactively sought external advice in relation to risk.
- Another member of staff is praised for speaking out on behalf of other female members of staff.
The report identified four broad areas of poor practice:
- The University failed to follow and/or operationalise its own policies and procedures.
- There was an inadequate risk assessment.
- There was an over-reliance on and lack of scrutiny of Human Resources (HR) decision making.
- The University failed to communicate with Ms Smith and external organisations in a professional manner. The report also found the University failed in its duty of pastoral care towards Ms Smith.
Professor Tickell said, “Our foremost concern remains with Allison Smith, who has been incredibly courageous in sharing her story. I have spoken with Allison to let her know my personal views and it is only right that I am now able to formally, and publicly, acknowledge that the University’s response to her case was inadequate. Consequently, on behalf of the University of Sussex, I am very sorry for the failings identified in Professor Westmarland’s report. I am grateful to Allison for taking part in the review. We will continue to offer her whatever support she needs.
“In the short time I have been at Sussex, I have become aware of how upset many members of our community were to hear about this case and I want to publicly recognise those feelings and views. There are important lessons from Professor Westmarland’s report about our procedures and cultural expectations, and I am committed to the University addressing these issues. Students and staff at the University have a right to feel safe and supported, and we will be introducing a series of major initiatives in response to the report’s recommendations.”
Professor Tickell stated the University’s first priority was to understand if people who provided information on other potential cases to Professor Westmarland wanted to come forward and have these matters looked into.
He said, “I want to assure those people who have raised past issues, and any others who may want to come forward, that we will immediately look into their matter and carry out whatever appropriate action is necessary. Abuse, of any kind, will not be tolerated at this university.”
Ms Allison Smith said, "I am pleased there has been such a thorough review into what happened in my case. My primary motivation is that this does not happen to anyone else. I fully support and agree with all of Professor Westmarland’s recommendations and am pleased to see the University plan to put major changes in place. All the people that came forward and gave feedback have already made a huge difference in speaking out against violence. I will never forget the kindness shown to me once the case became public, and I deeply thank everyone who has supported and expressed care for me."
Professor Westmarland said, “I am heartened to see the raft of measures the University plan to implement following the failures identified in my report. This case has clearly demonstrated that violence and abuse, perpetrated by staff or by students, should not be dismissed as purely a private matter. 'Health and Safety' should not be limited to issues such as medical first aid and fire safety but understood much more broadly - including violence and abuse perpetrated within the university community.”
Commenting further on the report, Professor Tickell said, “It is vitally important that we address the systemic gap in our institution’s practices and, alongside this, create a culture of transparency, respect and responsibility. I will work with the University’s leadership team and experts in the field to put in place the necessary steps to bring about this critical change so that our students and staff feel comfortable about speaking up, know they will be listened to and issues will be addressed.
“I am committed to ensuring our staff are appropriately equipped to respond to difficult situations which might arise and to be able to offer the support our students and staff may require. It is imperative that we create the kind of working environment in which our staff feel empowered to make the right decisions for the welfare of students and other members of staff.”
Professor Tickell concluded, “We are not proud of this recent history at Sussex but, in going through this difficult period, I hope that other universities can learn from this case and we can all build on the work that is being undertaken by Universities UK to scrutinise and address these important issues.”
Since the commissioning of the review, the University has begun to implement a number of initiatives to address the issues that this case has highlighted. In addition, Sussex will be implementing all of the report’s recommendations.
Recommendation 1: The Vice-Chancellor has apologised to Ms Smith in person. He believes it is only right the University acknowledges its failings in the handling of this case and publicly states its apology.
Recommendation 2: The University will update its disciplinary procedures and make clear the timing of actions in the event of on-going criminal justice proceedings.
Recommendation 3: The University will restate its condemnation of violence through its Prevention and Management of Violence Policy and update this in line with the recommendations in the report. Sussex is in the process of setting up a University-wide working group made up of the appropriate representatives in Equality and Diversity, Student Services, Human Resources, academic and professional services leaders, staff who specialise in related research, as well as expert organisations to undertake this work. The University will take steps to ensure the policy works on an ‘every day’ basis and is embedded into institutional practices. It is important to acknowledge the key relationships the University has with expert and specialist organisations such as domestic abuse charity RISE, the Survivors’ Network, Mankind and Rape Crisis. The University will also continue to work with Brighton & Hove City Council’s ‘Violence against Women and Girls’ initiative.
Recommendation 4: The University will call upon its extensive internal expertise and resources, as well as specialist external advice, to develop a clear policy on staff-student and staff-staff relationships. Work has begun to understand the important considerations, which need to be taken into account when developing and implementing such a policy.
Recommendation 5: The University will ensure it embeds a new, robust and transparent risk assessment process, which includes representation from the person making the complaint.
Recommendation 6: The University has established a new ‘case conference’ process, which ensures that HR decision-making is open to discussion and challenge; and that there is greater representation of views from senior managers in cases where there are allegations of gross misconduct. The University publicly recognises the critical role of the Vice-Chancellor and Registrar in ensuring the well-being and safety of its students and staff.
Recommendation 7: In October 2016, the University announced the appointment of two senior academic staff as joint Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor of Equality and Diversity – a newly created position. This role will be supported by additional staff to establish a team dedicated to addressing the institution’s objectives and will include a single point of contact for all complaints of violence, abuse or harassment.
Recommendation 8: The University has started work to ensure information on this subject is easily accessible on its website. It is also developing other digital tools to allow students to report complaints.
Recommendation 9: The University is continuing to roll out training for frontline staff to help them provide the best possible support in relation to disclosure of information and complaints. It is also in the process of identifying comprehensive awareness and behaviour changing training initiatives; and ensuring that all leaders in the organisation participate in these. In addition, the University will develop a ‘Care Pathway’ (the process for identifying and following abuse complaints) which will be incorporated into the institution’s staff induction programme.
Recommendation 10: The University is committed to looking into any matter that is raised in relation to violence, abuse or harassment. The Vice-Chancellor has given his personal assurance that anyone who comes forward will be offered a meeting with a senior manager of the University.
Recommendation 11: The University will be undertaking a number of initiatives, which focus on creating an on-going campus wide conversation about violence, abuse and harassment. Following on from the recent ‘Sexual Consent’ information campaign, the University will carry on this work with the Students’ Union and Safer Sussex group. Sussex has also commissioned a major initiative – Changing University Cultures (www.chucl.com) – which will focus on working with staff to acknowledge issues, create understanding and bring about cultural change. Dr Alison Phipps and Dr Liz McDonnell, experts in gender and higher education at Sussex, will deliver this initiative, alongside Jess Taylor, an independent organisational development consultant.
Notes for editors:
- Professor Westmarland is one of the UK’s leading researchers in the field of domestic violence. She is a Professor of Criminology at Durham University and Director of the Durham Centre for Research into Violence and Abuse. She has a long history of work within women’s organisations, including being Chair of Rape Crisis (England and Wales) for five years and a trustee of other violence and abuse charities. Professor Westmarland recently sat on the Durham University Sexual Violence Task Force and has chaired and advised a number of government committees.
- Professor Westmarland conducted face-to-face interviews with staff who were connected to the case, held open evidence sessions for Sussex staff and students, received individual and written collective evidence as well as interviews with staff from domestic abuse charity RISE, conducted interviews with Allison Smith and received email answers from the former member of staff in question.