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Oxford University panel cleared professor to keep teaching after department investigation upheld harassment allegations

CW: Sexual harassment.

An Oxford University departmental investigation confirmed allegations of harassment against a professor, before a confidential review panel issued a verbal warning and cleared him to continue working with students.

On 28th November 2022, a student at the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology at the University of Oxford submitted a complaint to the Head of the School against a professor for sexual harassment. Around the same time, a second student submitted a separate complaint against the same professor. These came after multiple students had spoken to administrators within the Dunn School regarding concerns about him over a period of years. In accordance with University protocol, the Dunn School subsequently carried out an investigation into the formal complaints. 

The professor’s past appointments include Pro-Vice Chancellor of the University, Head of Department at the Dunn School, as well as Tutor for undergraduates at a college level, a position he still holds. He is retiring at the end of this term. 

The first complaint accused the professor of inappropriate questioning about sexual practices, repeated sexual references, making unwanted sexual advances, and giving an unwanted kiss on the cheek. These occurred both within a laboratory setting and at departmental and college social events.

An investigation was carried out by the Dunn School involving interviews with the student who submitted the complaint and with the professor. Nearly a year later, on 12th July 2023, this investigation upheld the truth of each of these complaints. It concluded that the former three of these allegations constituted harassment and the final allegation was determined to constitute “unprofessional conduct”. 

The second student’s complaint, which involved allegations of the professor flirting, dancing, and inappropriately touching the student’s shoulder, also led to an investigation. This investigation also involved interviews with the student and the professor. The investigation upheld the complaints and found one to be an instance of unprofessional conduct. 

Cherwell has also been made aware of at least one further former complaint made by a non-student.  

One of several concerns voiced by students prior to the investigation further resulted in the placement of informal restrictions over the professor within the department, which prevented him from taking on graduate students in his laboratory and from attending social events with students where alcohol was served.  

During this time, the professor continued teaching undergraduates at a college level.

In line with University procedure, upon completion of an investigation, the Head of Department can elect to take no further action; initiate resolution of the issues; or institute disciplinary proceedings. In accordance with the third option, the Head of Department elected to refer the case to a University-convened ‘Staff Employment Review Panel’ (SERP).

Cases are referred to SERP where a Department considers that there is “good cause for dismissal” of a member of staff, and the Vice-Chancellor or their delegate considers that the matter should proceed further. 

The accused professor was given the opportunity to speak about the complaints in front of the Panel as part of the SERP hearing. None of the individuals who submitted complaints against him were similarly involved. University policy stipulates that those submitting complaints are not involved with SERP hearings: they are informed neither that they are being convened, nor of their ultimate decision. The Panel’s proceedings are not shared with those submitted complaints as it “concerns a confidential matter between an individual and their employer.” 

In SERP proceedings, the accused employee is given the opportunity to defend themself in front of the panel. A student told Cherwell he found it “problematic” that the professor was invited to the hearing when those who complained against him were not. In particular, he said the Panel hadn’t seen the “serious emotions” of those who had complained, or heard directly what they had gone through. A second non-student who had submitted a complaint said separately: “I had no voice at that panel.”

The SERP ultimately did not uphold the complaints and they issued the professor a verbal warning. They lifted the informal restrictions regarding taking on graduate students and attending social events with alcohol. The professor was allowed to continue working at Dunn School as well as at a college level throughout this process and after. 

There were 226 days between the first student’s complaint on the 28th November 2022 and the results of the Dunn School’s investigation on 12th July 2023. By the time the SERP came to a decision, it was April 2024 – over sixteen months after the student’s complaint. The professor continued work with no formal restrictions during this time. The student told Cherwell that during the 226 days of the initial investigation, he was constantly “scared” of bumping into the professor. 

Some faculty and staff members are currently advocating to change the way harassment complaints are dealt with within the Medical Science Division of the University. These suggested changes include sharing information regarding cases of serious sexual harassment with both the University and the college where the accused person is employed.

They are also advocating to change procedure regarding disciplinary processes against members of staff so that the relevant staff member is temporarily suspended until the disciplinary process is complete, in cases of credible allegations of sexual harassment.

One of the students who submitted complaints against the professor further told Cherwell that he believed the allegations he made were representative of a “problematic pattern” and described other reported instances of “inappropriate behaviour”. Additional students said that they chose not to make formal complaints due to fear of repercussions for their professional future. Given the professor’s prominence in the field, students worried complaints might have had “far-reaching consequences” since it can “really sink one’s career.” 

A student at the Dunn School told Cherwell this case was “the tip of the iceberg.” They described the high-pressure, close-contact laboratory environment as a “breeding ground for problems.”

The student further stated that this case is one of many instances of unprofessional behaviour within the University. “The environment,” he said, is “a sort of playground for these people to do whatever they want – without repercussions.”

A spokesperson from Oxford University told Cherwell: “The University does not comment on confidential employee matters.” They further said  “The University and the Dunn School take all allegations of harassment very seriously and encourage staff and students to report any concerns they may have.”

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