Last spring, Karin Röding, former Director General of the Swedish Council for Higher Education, UHR, submitted a report entitled ”Umeå University’s handling of misconduct – 32 forward-looking proposals for change” to the university’s management.
Important to conduct a review
The background to her external review assignment was the newspaper Västerbottenkuriren’s revelations about sexual harassment, which was awarded the Guldspaden investigative journalism award in 2021.
“It is important that all higher education institutions conduct a review of these issues, themselves or externally,” says Karin Röding, “and, as in the exemplary case of Umeå University, that it is conducted transparently. It’s easy to overlook things that happen in your own organisation, and it’s better to do these things in a calm atmosphere than to wait until someone is breathing down your neck.”
Can serve as a checklist
The suggestions she presented to Umeå University are based on the situation there, but to some extent they can also serve as a checklist for other higher education institutions, she believes. The first five proposals are about developing accountability and competence at central level regarding sexual harassment, so that managers can receive better support and that there is a general overview.
“For heads of department, sexual harassment is hopefully something they have to deal with rarely, so they need to know that they can turn to someone for support, someone who has accumulated experience over time,” says Röding.
In order for the victim, the accused and the manager to know what to do and what to expect in a case of sexual harassment, guidelines and procedures need to be clear and robust. She found a good example at Lund University, which has clear action plans and a special team for systematic preventive work against discrimination.
Wants to counter discrimination
The team was set up in January 2021 and is the institution’s central node for competence and support. HR consultant Lena Lindell coordinates the team and says that its establishment has been important for the university’s work to counter discrimination, including sexual harassment.
“We have different skills that complement each other,” says Lindell, “and it means a lot that there is always someone on site who can deal with questions. I also think that it’s an important signal to the university that the management takes the issue seriously.”
Investigations into sexual harassment cases still take place primarily at departmental or faculty level. If more support is needed, this is done in collaboration with the specialist team in order to simultaneously develop the competence within the organisation. Karin Röding also highlights the importance of the administration working to build knowledge.
Communication is crucial
The changes at Lund University are a result of the research-based project Tellus, which examined sexual harassment at the university, as well as an internal review of working methods. Investigations into sexual harassment cases are conducted using a fact-finding method created by two Norwegian researchers.
“Throughout the process, communication is crucial; that those involved know the status of the investigation and when they will be contacted again,” says Lena Lindell.
The action plans, which Karin Röding described as relatively clear in terms of the sector, are now being clarified further, for example with regard to what procedures are to be followed in a case and what the consequences of a report of sexual harassment may be.
Pressure on the manager
The procedure for sexual harassment cases will also be merged with the one for discriminatory treatment, contrary to what Karin Röding suggested in her report.
“The manager doesn’t have to think about whether it is one or the other from the start, but follows one and the same procedure and chooses the appropriate path at the end,” says Lindell.
“We also put more pressure on the manager to use the support resources that are available.”
She herself does not want to highlight Lund University as the role model – yet.
“We have made some progress, but feel that we have just started and have a long way to go. We must also work preventively, but we haven’t had much time for that yet.”
Karin Röding’s proposal also includes a clearer procedure for referring cases to the staff disciplinary board; training of managers, as well as staff who may witness harassment; and clear communication from the management to employees, students and the media.
“What the management says and the signals it sends is extremely important,” she says.