Resignation is a Feminist Issue

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. Until I resigned, my own working life had been based in universities: I was a student for around 10 years and I have been an academic for over 20 years. So much of what know is shaped by where I have been located. I carry the university with me; I value the work of the university because I value knowledge and education. I value what it can do: to learn and to engage with others who are learning.  Universities are also institutions that are structured by power relations all the way down. We create feminist programmes and centres because universities, however much they exercise the language of equality and diversity, often do not express those commitments other than in policy.  So yes: most of us with feminist commitments end up working for organisations that do not have these commitments, even when they might appear to have them.  After all we often acquire our commitments to do something because of what is not being done.  To work as a feminist means trying to transform the organisations that employ us – or house us. This rather obvious fact has some telling consequences.  When we try to shake the walls of the house, we are also shaking the foundations of our own existence.

But what if we do this work and the walls stay up? What if we do this work and the same things keep coming up? What if our own work of exposing a problem is used as evidence there is no problem? Then you have to ask yourself: can I keep working here? What if staying employed by an institution means you have to agree to remain silent about what might damage its reputation?

By saying resignation is a feminist issue I am not saying to resign is an inherently feminist act even when you resign in protest because of the failure to deal with the problem sexual harassment. I am saying: to be a feminist at work means holding in suspense the question of where to do our work. The work you do must be what you question. Sometimes, leaving can be staying, with feminism. Sometimes. And not for all feminists: other feminists in the same situation might stay because they cannot afford to leave, or because they have not lost the will to keep chipping away at those walls.

So it is time to tell the story. This is my story: of how I came to resign; how I came to the decision not just to leave my post, but the university system.

This is my story.

It is personal.

The personal is institutional.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Speaking out, I first learned of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in June of 2013 from a colleague who had been told by a student who had been harassed. I did not know what to do, so I asked a colleague who told me who to approach in senior management. I am interested, in hindsight, that I was unsure about what to do. It should be the norm that we know what to do. I then learnt from this manager that an enquiry was being conducted about sexual harassment. I was then invited by another academic to a meeting with students in response to the failure of this enquiry. That meeting took place in November 2013. Without any question, what I learnt about what had been going on changed my relation to my work environment for ever. The university would not be the same for me.

I would not have it any other way.

Sometimes you need to know what makes it hard to stay.

As a result of this meeting, which was followed by many other meetings, a new enquiry took place; followed by two more in relation to two other staff members. In two of these three cases, the members of staff left.

Why did what I learnt make the university a place I could no longer inhabit?  I knew sexual harassment was a real problem. There had been serious cases I knew about at both my former institutions in the UK – Cardiff and Lancaster. The reason this was different: I began to realise how the system was working. I began to realise that the system was working.

I began to realise too my own complicity with that system. I had previously known that the centre in which much of the harassment was happening was not a centre with which I could be connected: I found their whole ethos and culture to be incredibly sexist. So I had stopped going to their events, and had my own boycott policy in place: if I was asked to supervise any of their incoming students, or to be involved in a panel or a viva, I would say no, on principle. I thought my principle was a feminist protest. I was wrong. In fact it meant I had taken myself out from the situations where I might have witnessed the harassment and abuse firsthand. I had taken myself away from the students who could have turned to me for support. If it had not been for setting up our Centre for Feminist Research, and being asked to attend that meeting, I could have stayed knowing enough to know there was a problem but not knowing about the problem. I will return to this question of “exiting situations” in due course. We often need to ask ourselves how we didn’t know something once we come to know something.

What I came to realise was: this was not an issue of an individual person whose removal would remove the problem. Indeed the assumption that to remove a person is to remove a problem is often how the problem remains.  This was an issue of institutional culture, which had become built around (or to enable) abuse and harassment. When we talk about sexual harassment as institutional culture we can be referring to how female students are addressed in seminars and social spaces; the use of sexist language within teaching (one academic would keep using the example of woman’s bodies or referred such-and-such philosopher’s “ugly wife”); the use of sexist and racist jokes as a form of bonding especially within social spaces; as well as inappropriate touching. It can involve groping and sexual advances that are unwelcome: that is part of it but the not the start of it. It can involve a highly “intimate” and personal way of inhabiting spaces with students; it can involve the sexualising of college space (for example through the use of pornography in offices); and it can involve putting pressure on students to have sexual relationships (often through the use of drugs and alcohol).  For all of this to be going on at the same time, we are also talking about harrassment as recruitment:  there are penalties for noncooperation (withdrawal of supervision or time) as well as rewards for cooperation (the same people engaging in this behavior are in control of scholarships, for example).

We have evidence that this kind of conduct, conduct as culture, had been in place since the late 1990s. The head of the centre acknowledged to a colleague of mine they had a problem with sexual harassment in 2003. I would argue that knowing of the problem whilst the problem is ongoing is creating and participating in the problem. So this abuse and harassment was going on, whilst people knew about it, for at least a decade, probably longer. It was going on because academic staff had been given permission to conduct themselves in this way. It had been going on despite many students leaving. It had been going on because some of the mechanisms that might have stopped or brought it to the surface had been suspended by the staff themselves. Indeed, staff seemed to use their identity as political radicals to defy rules or conventions. The very regulations that might have helped to protect students were identified by academic staff with management who were then identified as against academic staff (because of their radicalism).

This is how: any complaint became identified in advance as a betrayal of a cause.

Sexual harassment became: part of a cause.

Trying to address this history, trying not to reproduce this history: another cause.

Over this last three years it has been a lot of work not to get very far. And that is also part of the problem: something keeps happening because it is made so difficult to stop it from happening. This is not to say we didn’t anywhere. When I came to understand how the system worked, I began to work with students (and some staff) on how to reopen enquiries that would enable them to collect the evidence, which was there to collect but very difficult to provide (because very system that many students wanted to complain about was the same system that made it almost impossible to complain).

We got somewhere, although the last enquiry did not seem to be conducted with the same conviction and purpose, and I began to sense a withdrawal of institutional will. But it was what followed the enquiries that led me to giving up my own institutional will. Because despite how much the evidence showed that the problem was one of culture and  complicity, there was no public discussion held about what had been happening and what we could learn from it. There was no chance to reflect together as academics on how to develop professional norms that would better protect students from abuse and harassment and misconduct. There were changes made to policies and complaints procedures. But these policy changes were made without talking to academic staff: I only knew about them because of my own involvement.

You can change policies without changing anything. You can change policies in order not to change anything.

Policies do matter but not because changing policies automatically changes the situation. In fact, it was an issue of policy that was one of the most wearing of the issues we dealt with. In the Centre for Feminist Research’s submission to the UK taskforce set up to address violence against women within Higher Education we refer to a paragraph, which was in Goldsmiths’ conflict of interest policy. This paragraph is not unique to Goldsmiths (it is shared by a number of universities). I read this paragraph just after my first meeting with the students:

The College values good professional relationships between staff and students. These relationships are heavily reliant upon mutual trust and confidence, and can be jeopardised when a member of staff enters a sexual/romantic liaison with a student. At the extreme, these liaisons can jeopardise professional relationships and can result in an abuse of power. Problems can also occur when a consensual relationship later becomes non-consensual or a case of harassment. The College does not wish to prevent, or even necessarily be aware of, liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.

The policy first offers what I would call fatalism as justification: relationships or “laisons” between staff and students will happen so we will let them happen. Note here how consensual relationships and harassment are separated clearly (and with confidence). We should all know that when there is a power relation, consent becomes an unstable category (those with more power can make not consenting more difficult). Note also the emphasis on personal ethics (confidence and trust), and the assumption of good faith (this is an institutional version of bad faith). The last sentence is the key one: the college does not want to prevent such relationships or even be aware of them. This is what I would call an institutional blind eye, the institution has declared it will look the other way. This blind eye, this act of turning away, is here given official sanction: and it is what gives permission for abuse and harassment to happen. With integrity: no less.

Not knowing: here it is not a matter of chance. If you decide not to know not knowing is willed and it is work.

One colleague said to me recently that he thinks that the reason there has been a reluctance to address this issue more publicly is because of the desire to maintain a distinction between “consensual relationships” between staff and students and abuses of power. Why? Because many academics are in relationships with former students.

We have no room for the past tense on this specific matter. We need to create and share norms of professional conduct now to protect students now. We need to stop romanticising “consensual relationships” between staff and students. To be a lecturer comes with responsibilities. This is one of them: to teach. Having relationships with students not only compromises students (and their learning experience) but the whole class: everyone is affected by it. It should not happen.

So it was very important to change that policy. That it was done, however, in silence replicated the problem that was in the policy: allowing us not to know what had gone on. Changing the policy that turned a blind eye involved turning a blind eye. And although the policy was changed it is worth noting that paragraph stayed online for over a year after we first complained about it (until after the SHHE conference at the end of 2015, to be precise, which I refer to below, when the diversity and equality officer took up the cause to take it down). We had so many communications with so many about getting the paragrah amended or removed: it was exhausting.

The effort over a paragraph embodies the wider effort: so much work not to get very far.

So much work not to get very far.

We did try to get conversations going. Even the conference organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015 ended up feeling like we are talking amongst ourselves. This is not to say the conference was not important: it most certainly was. But you sensed that the people who were not in the room where the ones who needed to be there. The Centre for Feminist Research hosted a panel discussion of Sexism in March 2016: again it did rather feel like we talking to ourselves. Very few academic members of staff were in attendance. The discussion was still important to have. And of course, people are busy. But one member of staff told me they hadn’t come “because it would be too depressing.” And I thought about that: we are not having the conversations because they would get in the way of our happiness. If our happiness depends on turning away from violence, our happiness is violence.

The absence of any discussion of the problem was a reenactment of the problem: that we do not want to know about it is how it keeps being done. At our conference on Sexism, it became clear that this problem was being reproduced. It turned out that there had been more complaints that year from students who had no idea of this previous history (how could they; they had not been told about it; it had been erased). These were not the same  complaints as made before although some similar issues were coming up. But their complaints had been dismissed – or been responded to in a superficial manner – within the centre in which they were studying. And students then said they do not want to proceed with formal complaints  until after they had their final marks. So again: formal complaint procedures don’t get at this problem. The problem is that those with power over others (which is what teachers have – the power to mark, to assess, to value) end up not being questioned because of the power they have over others. This is actually a much bigger problem than sexual harassment or perhaps we should say: sexual harassment is part of a bigger problem. It is about: how academics exercise power often by concealing that power. One of the mantras that kept being used in relation to university students, “but they are adults,” as if being of age means they cannot be abused by those with power. What we seem to be lacking here: an understanding of how power works, which is of course how power works. Power works by removing an understanding of how power works.

Watching histories be reproduced despite all our efforts was one of the hardest experiences of my academic career – well one of the hardest experiences of my life. I just found it shocking. And to complete the story: I originally asked for unpaid leave because doing this work can be demoralising as well as exhausting. But in the course of applying for unpaid leave (and the difficulty of making arrangements in my absence), I felt a snap: I call it feminist snap. My relationship with the institution was too broken. I needed a real break: I had reached the end of the line.

That snap might sound quite violent, dramatic even. Resigning in feminist protest – and making public that you are resigning in feminist protest – does get attention. It can be a sharp sound; it can sound like a sudden break.  In my case, that break was supported by many of my colleagues; but not by all. One colleague describes my action as “rash,” a word used to imply an action that is too quick as well as careless. Snapping is often a matter of timing. A snap can feel like a moment. But snap is a moment with a history: a history can be the accumulated effect of what you have come up against.  And just think: you have to do more, the more you do not get through. You have had hundreds of meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You have written blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence. To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort. So the action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash.

Well maybe then: I am willing to be rash.

But of course that my resignation has been supported by many of my colleagues is important. There are now many more people who know something more about what has been happening and who want to be part of a meaningful process of working through the legacy of this history, which is not over, and of changing practices as well as policies. The senior management is now back in dialogue with the students (some of whom are now early career academics) whose activism has been so crucial each difficult and painful step of the way. Maybe we can be cynical: maybe some of these developments only happened because reputation was at risk. I don’t think we can afford to be cynical. We need to find the resources to let us do what we need to do to make a difference; however they come about.


Resigning worked; it broke a seal.

Maybe it is sad it took that. But I am glad I did that.

Of course in leaving I am leaving students that otherwise I would have taught. How is this different to what I did before, when I exited the spaces that would have led me to know sooner what I knew later?  I am leaving, this time, because of what I know. And I need to leave because of what and who stayed.

And I also know: there are many ways to be a feminist teacher. Being employed by a university is one way. I will be exploring others.

Resigning was speaking out. It was saying: this is serious enough that I have had enough.

Resigning was also a feminist hearing. What do I mean by this? Feminist ears prick up at this point. A feminist ear picks up on what is being said, sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands. To acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.  But it is not just that feminist ears can hear beyond the silence that functions as a wall. Once it is heard that you are willing to hear, more people will speak to you. While a snap might seem to make the tongue the organ of feminist rebellion, snap is all about ears. A feminist ear can provide a release of a pressure valve. A feminist ear can be how you hear what is not being heard.

Silence: when you can hear what has not been said.

Because: those who experience harassment often have nowhere to go. A complaints procedure does not help. And when they do speak they are heard as complaining. As I noted in an earlier post, the word complaint shares a root with the word plague, in a vulgar sense, to strike at the breast. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill. If diversity is damage limitation, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech, of trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard. To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard. So those who are willing to hear will end up hearing more and more; you are providing a place to go. Once I began working with students, more and more students got in touch with me. Some of these students did not testify in the enquiries: they just needed a hearing. And so I heard more and more stories of harassment and abuse. This is not a biography of my institution: I suspect at any university if you declare you are prepared to listen to students about their experiences of harassment, you will find more and more students come to find you. This fact: reflects how few places students have to go.

When I resigned, this process that had already happened within my own college, was extended. Resignation offers a feminist hearing because a public action has a wider reach. So many people got in touch with me after I spoke out about sexual harassment with their own stories of harassment and abuse in universities; with their own battles. Telling the story is part of the feminist battle. A feminist ear can be what we are for. The more wearing it is, the more we need to hear.

Our work has to be about giving students more places to go. Right now I feel I can be a better part of this effort from working outside the university system. Otherwise for me: working would be wearing down.

And we can witness that effort acquire momentum. Even a few months ago, when I resigned, I never expected that a story about sexual harassment in universities would be on the front pages of The Guardian, as it was today. That story: it became possible because of the efforts of many including students and former students who still cannot be named.  I thank all of you. I witness the formation of a new group, The 1752 Group that will act as a national task-force to target staff-to-student misconduct and harassment, with a sense of optimism.

We have to embody the changes we are aiming for.

Because there is work to do.

Feminist work.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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28 Responses to Resignation is a Feminist Issue

  1. syrens says:

    Reblogged this on syrens and commented:
    Take a look at this.

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  3. tonyfort says:

    This is no surprise to me; it’s the same with bullying. The educational institute where I worked had multiple overlapping policies on bullying, but bullying was rife. In the end, the bullying got so bad, I had to leave; bullying of others by incompetent vindictive sociopaths; feeling insecure for speaking out. These are the cultures created by large institutions which become self-serving and which are maintained by people in more powerful positions acting out of self-interest. Depressing? Very much so. The ones who remain are the ones who can’t leave: can’t afford it, are too old, or lack self-belief. My health and sanity are far more important to me. That’s why I left.

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