The name and shame campaign was a desperate ‘guerrilla attack’ on an ‘all-is-well’ system.
One more new year has come with a long list of wishes. But the wish for freedom from sexual harassment, especially in universities – a problem which a list naming and shaming alleged harassers made audible last year – is unlikely to be fulfilled any time soon.
In fact, there are strong indications that the struggle against such vulnerability will have to intensify. Some students at the prestigious Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta (CSSSC) have now accused it of a “culture of silencing and institutional indifference”.
Their statement is timely because the academia is gradually settling for complacency after the naming and shaming campaign. This article will first suggest immediate solutions and then explore the complexities of the problem.
First, the skewed relation of authority between a supervisor and supervisee must be revised. Research students are the most vulnerable. Besides guidance, their careers also depend on signatures of supervisors for a length of four years or more. Such is the system that an extractive price can be easily put on monopolistic rubber stamps. Like in the economy, introduction of other players – such as an inter-departmental and/or inter-university committee – can dismantle this bottleneck.
If a research student reports to the office of the committee that academic progress is being stalled, the committee should be constituted without delay and through random selection from an enlisted pool of professors. An official complaint against sexual harassment must not be mandatory at this stage. The point is to let research students act, even upon signs of sexual harassment.
The committee should hear both sides, whether actually and/or virtually, and judge in front of a larger university audience. The complainant must have two or more chances of immediate re-appeal before other similarly constituted committees. If allegations of the research student stand, it will be the prerogative of the committee to find the research student an acceptable supervisor in a time-bound manner.
In this era of high connectivity, such a supervisor may even be made available from another university. Till then, the committee itself must monitor the progress of the complainant’s research.
The current procedure to change supervisor is difficult. The prospective supervisor has to be from the same department in the university and has to agree to supervise. Also, there is no guarantee that such search will remain undisclosed and that may invite retaliation. So the option of the larger committee is non-negotiable. Of course, the complainant should be free to approach authorities – internal complaints committee (ICC) or the police – to register a case of sexual harassment simultaneously or once the future of the research is secured.
Second, glass doors must replace wooden doors in professors’ offices. Opaque doors are the norm in universities. I have seen them during my days at the Delhi School of Economics and JNU. My short stays at Hyderabad Central University and CSSSC did not reveal otherwise. Visits to Jadavpur University and the Indian Institute of Public Administration noted the confines as well. Transparent doors discourage possible misuse of authority inside a closed space. The see-through design in corporate workplaces is popular because it denies predatory opportunities. Small changes complement systematic amendments and are sure to boost confidence among all stakeholders in universities.
Third, gender sensitisation is a must. In a global world, universities are culturally heterogeneous. Individuals come from a variety of backgrounds. They should be informed that what passes in one cultural group may not in another. To cite an example, the everyday cuss word “sala” (brother-in-law) is suggestion of sexual relation with the sister of the addressee. Few cuss words exist that do not invade the female body in one way or the other. Though most may overlook “sala”, yet anybody is at liberty to take umbrage and contest it.
Fourth, it should be mandatory for a professor to recuse oneself from evaluating a student who is also a sexual partner. Now this may shock a condom-counting Rajasthan MLA, but sexual relation based on mutual consent between a professor and a student is not a problem as long as the former is not the evaluator of the same student.
In such a scenario, the basis of consent is suspect, and the university administration must end this practice on grounds of conflict of interest as well.
The problem of sexual harassment requires an impartial approach. The unsubstantiated name and shame campaign lost credibility after compilers could not furnish basis to include Partha Chatterjee – the only academic who chose to challenge his name in it. Others had dismissed it as “baseless” and “hysteria”.
But can it be concluded that no superior-subordinate relation on that name and shame list, either advertently or inadvertently, lapsed into sexual harassment behind opaque doors or elsewhere? It is difficult to reply in the positive because the list shoots not only at names, but also exposes a vulnerable system.
So individuals in that list must be presumed “innocent until proven guilty” – a basic tenet of natural justice and also Article 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But it will be apathy to not target the system which has built dependence into academic guidance. The TINA (there is no alternative) feeling must be removed from the supervisor-supervisee relationship.
Recourse to shoot-and-scoot defamatory lists is justified once in a while. But repetition is likely to lead to the tragic circumstances of the fabled shepherd who was quick to cry wolf. The name and shame list was a desperate guerrilla attack on an “all-is-well” system. Now, it must be followed by demands for tangible steps. Else, it will be bravado without bravery. #KhabarLive