The one time I saw him, he’d shown a film and spoke about the lack of ethics in mainstream media politics. A sad irony not lost on me last Friday when reading about Dr Lee Salter, the Sussex academic who left the institution last week following his conviction for assault against a 24-year old former student with whom he had established an intimate relationship.
After seeing the horrific photographs and hearing the former student’s testimony, one wonders how he feels sufficiently undaunted to appeal the assault conviction. Perhaps it was the relatively light sentence of less than six months, suspended for eighteen. It also probably didn’t hurt his confidence that the university allowed him to continue in his senior post even after being charged with a criminal offence and after complaints were made. According to the most recent information this week, he is now no longer employed by the university.
Although there is no evidence to suggest that this was not an isolated incident, most of us who have worked with gendered patterns of violence are well aware that very few assaults like this are sudden, singular events. They are usually the tip of the iceberg – critical flashpoints in longer cyclical patterns of control and violence that gradually undermine the self-esteem and traumatise the person at the receiving end. These relationships are inevitably enmeshed in underlying social inequalities. In this case she was a young female student, and he was an older male lecturer.
Unfortunately Salter’s case is not isolated. Friday’s report comes two months after Dr Sarah Ahmed resigned in protest from Goldsmith’s after six investigations of abuse involving four academic colleagues went publicly unacknowledged. Ahmed stated: “When I talk about the problem of sexual harassment I am not talking about one rogue individual, or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution. We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalised and generalised — as part of academic culture.”
So what is going on at British Universities that certain teachers are given room to act in an abusive manner to those they are supposed to be mentoring?
It seems evident that underlying issues of power are simply not being addressed. Situations such as these appear to be managed administratively using discreet discussions about “private issues” between “consenting adults” rather than tackling the larger issues at stake about unequal power and professional ethics.
The blanket concept of “consensual relationships” belies the complex nature of power involved in relationships between teachers and students. The institutional pecking order consistently will tend to give greater credibility to the former over the latter, even more so if there are also age, gender, racial and other social hierarchies at play.
Similarly, the use of simplistic binaries about the private and public spheres creates a permissive culture for abuses of power as long as they are kept behind closed doors. Even if this particular criminal offence didn’t occur on the university grounds, for example, and even if the person making the denunciation was by then no longer a student, why was it “beyond the bounds” of the university’s role to ensure reasonable conduct and basic human respect from its established professionals?
Fortunately, now there is a conviction it can no longer be managed through HR definitions of “consensual relationships”, or “confidential private life” that potentially jeopardise the rights of women students and those located in less secure positions in institutional structures. However in order to avoid future abuses, it is urgent that university administrators, at Sussex and elsewhere, pay heed to more complex approaches to power and incorporate them into frameworks for ethical professional practice.
Speaking to The Independent, the University of Sussex said: "The University does not tolerate violence of any kind and it is important that such matters are dealt with by the police and the courts, which takes precedence over employment procedures. The University has established disciplinary procedures and we are responding to the court's findings, however we are unable to comment on individual employment matters."
Turning a blind eye to these structural issues facilitates space for unacceptable behaviour endangering future students and other members of staff. Perhaps then, the horrific testimony to which we have borne witness at Sussex, might serve as an opportunity for some deep soul searching and, one hopes, decisive action to stop future abuses.
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