Content warning: Sexual harassment and violence

A first-of-its-kind climate survey intends to provide credible data for sexual violence at New Zealand universities, however, the statutory body representing universities has rejected the proposal.

This comes as pressure grows on the tertiary sector following turmoil at the country’s second-largest university last year.

Dubbed the university’s “#MeToo moment” — accusations that the Auckland University of Technology (AUT) had mishandled allegations of sexual harassment were reported on by Stuff’s Alison Mau. Reporting led to the dismissal of two out of six deputy vice-chancellors, allegations of a broken culture, allegations of lying, and an external review. 

The review, which reported back three weeks ago, found AUT botched investigations into two cases of harassment by senior leadership and that the university had an unresolved culture of staff bullying. However, the review didn’t find evidence of a culture of sexual harassment. 

Stop Sexual Harassment On Campus (SSHOC) was a group launched in response to the allegations last year and is now responsible for organising the climate survey.  

A ‘climate survey’ is designed to provide a clear picture of the perception and perspectives within an organisation or sector on any given topic.

SSHOC has said they are basing their climate survey on one carried out by the American Economic Association which looked at rates of discrimination and harassment within economic academia.

Kayli Taylor, group spokesperson for SSHOC, spoke with Tearaway about the group’s work and the implications for the 175,240 students (2018) who are enrolled at tertiary institutions. 

The recent microscope on AUT’s practices came after numerous allegations of harassment and assault were detailed at Knox College — where at least a dozen survivors came forward following an investigation by the Otago student magazine Critic in 2019. 

Prior to Knox, allegations against a chemistry tutor at Victoria University in 2018 led to the university overhauling its harassment policy.

As a result of these scandals, Taylor said SSHOC was started to respond to the issue of harassment broadly at all universities in New Zealand. She said that there was a culture problem that all universities needed to ultimately reckon with.

The group said that it was focusing its efforts around the eight universities.

“My perception is that it’s an issue at every university and it’s slightly unique on every campus because every campus is slightly unique in terms of its structure.

“Part of the advantages of our group are that we look broadly at all eight universities and see what are some solutions that we can apply to all eight universities, because we do have a lot of similarities,” said Taylor.

Currently, all universities run their own complaints systems, and mainly share information on harassment and assault on an informal basis.

After overhauling its policies, the number of complaints at Victoria University doubled with the university’s provost, Wendy Larner, saying the surge in complaints was evident of a broader cultural problem outside just its own university.

Source: NZTEU Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Taylor said the group wanted to run a climate survey to provide an impetus for changes at all universities rather than at any particular university.

“All the data will be anonymized, but we are planning on releasing the findings of the survey and using that as evidence for more change,” said Taylor.

The group said the survey findings would be made public but that the findings wouldn’t necessarily be comparative between different universities. 

“The survey will enable us to look at those kinds of micro-instances and say, look, we’ve got data that suggests that it’s a macro problem,” Taylor says.

“Encouraging the broader conversation around things so that when a story pops up at a university, we can say, but look, there’s an issue across all universities,” Taylor continued.

Taylor, who also is an organiser with Thursdays In Black at Otago University, also expanded on SSHOC’s proposal to develop an independent body to review cases of harassment at universities.

“Our idea of an independent body emerged from a belief that universities aren’t always the best at prioritizing staff and student wellbeing and they often prioritize their reputation,” said Taylor. 

The independent body was proposed by the group in three different formats, varying from where the independent body simply reviewed university decision-making to fully investigating all cases of harassment on campuses. 

“We’ve talked about the non-disclosure agreements, that’s an example of silencing stories so that they don’t get made public, and in my opinion, to uphold the reputation of the university as a place where sexual violence doesn’t happen,” Taylor continued.

For their proposals, the group has approached Universities NZ who they say have rejected their proposals which would apply to the sector as a whole. 

“I’m aware that change takes a long time, but I think that there is the potential that if you get the ball rolling now in 10, 15 years, there will be better outcomes and processes for staff and students on campus”

“I think that Universities New Zealand has the potential to overhaul how universities respond to sexual violence and how universities care for students and staff,” said Taylor.

Universities NZ is a statutory body that performs legal obligations like approving scholarships and quality assurance. The body is funded by the eight universities and advocates on behalf of university vice-chancellors.

In a statement, director of Universities NZ Chris Whelan said that the organisation recognised the issue of harassment on campuses. 

Whelan said the response the organisation has on harassment was a basic website for resources and facilitation of idea-sharing between universities — as agreed to by the eight universities who fund it.

“UNZ hosts a website that provides resources and information for dealing with sexual harm. The eight universities agreed several years ago that this was the most useful thing that [we] could do for the sector,” said Whelan.

“Along with periodically bringing sector leaders together to learn from each other and to foster good practice,” Whelan continued.

Whelan also said the organisation doesn’t see value in supporting the proposed climate survey and said the opt-in methodology would discredit the survey’s results.

The organisation declined to comment on the external findings at AUT saying it “does not comment on particular issues at any individual university.”

Where to get help

  • If it’s an emergency and you feel that you or someone else is at risk, call 111 or otherwise contact the police immediately.
  • If you’ve ever experienced sexual assault or abuse and need to talk to someone call the confidential crisis helpline Safe to Talk on: 0800 044 334 or text 4334. (available 24/7)
  • Support for sexual abuse survivors from HELP: 0800 623 1700 (available 24/7)
  • Women’s Refuge – Call the Crisisline at 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE)
  • Lifeline: Call the confidential helpline on 0800 543354 or text ‘Help’ to 4357. (available 24/7)

JUSTIN HU is a first year communications student at AUT.

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