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Statement from Feminist Academics & Activists Concerning Dr Lee Salter, the University of Sussex, and Institutionalised Misogyny in British Higher Education
On Friday 12th August 2016, The Independent published a piece indicating that Dr Lee Salter, a senior lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Sussex (UK) gruesomely assaulted his partner and former student, Ms Allison Smith earlier this year. The piece further explained that Dr Salter had “punched in the face [Ms Smith], knocked out and stamped on, [….] had salt poured into her eyes and ears.” The photographs that were published in The Independent piece speaks volumes about the horrific violence and trauma that Dr Salter inflicted upon Ms Smith.
Despite pleading his innocence, Dr Salter was convicted on the 13th July 2016 of assault by beating and causing criminal damage to belongings at Brighton Magistrates' Court. Dr Salter received a 22-week jail sentence suspended for 18 months, was ordered to complete 150 hours of unpaid work and issued with a restraining order not to contact Ms Smith. The light sentence that Dr Salter received speaks of the disproportionality in how Black, Asian and minority ethnic British (BAME) are treated within the British criminal justice system versus that of a white man with professional status.
What is truly telling in this case is the woefully callous and negligent response from the University of Sussex. During the 10-month period between his arrest and conviction, Dr Salter was permitted to teach, despite the fact that the university was aware that he had committed a violent crime against Ms Smith. Meanwhile, it was reported that Ms Smith was so traumatised by the gross maltreatment and abuse that she received from Dr Salter that she was too afraid to leave her house.
Despite the fact that Dr Salter was convicted of assault by beating, he continued to remain on the payroll of the University of Sussex. It was only when The Independent began to pose further questions that Dr Salter's employment status changed. He was suspended from teaching by the University of Sussex around the time when The Independent went public with case. As a result of the tremendous public outcry, as evident from a Change.org petition that was set up on the 12th August 2016, that has amassed over three thousand signatures and growing, did the University of Sussex finally terminate Dr Salter's employment.
Counsellors who supported Ms Smith during the trial indicated that the University of Sussex had displayed a “concerning lack of care for the safety and welfare of its students”. Gail Gray, chief executive of RISE, a domestic abuse charity in Brighton, UK said that the abuse inflicted upon Ms Smith, “...is not a romantic 'Educating Rita' scenario. This is about a man who abused and exploited his position of power and authority to perpetuate domestic abuse.”
While the British media fixates on the fact that Ms Smith was a former student of Dr Salter's at the University of Sussex, we must also stress that the gruesome abuse that he committed would be no less so if the victim had been a sex worker or in any other consensual relationship with him. Dr Salter used his professional status in order to cultivate an emotionally and physically abusive relationship with a young woman, while the University of Sussex colluded by keeping silent about this abuse in order to protect its reputation and image as a progressive institution. In protecting Dr Salter, the University of Sussex committed gross negligence in terms of procedures concerning sexual harassment and gendered violence, endangering the lives of all cisgender and trans women and putting their personal safety at grave risk by continuing to allow him to teach.
As we have seen before, it is not uncommon for institutions, be they political organisations, governmental bodies, schools and universities, and companies to actively use bureaucratic structures to maintain silence concerning sexual harassment and gendered violence in the workplace.
As the Trade Union Congress of England and Wales (TUC) recently found from a survey of 1,500 women, more than half of women in the UK have been sexually harassed at work. The same study also found that some 79% of women who were victims of sexual harassment did not tell their employers. 24% of those who had been victims of workplace sexual harassment declined to report abuse because they felt that they would not be believed or taken seriously while 20% said that they were too embarrassed. The head of the TUC, Frances O'Grady added, “I think the most worrying fact from these findings is the number of women who simply don't feel able to report [sexual harassment].”
In the case of universities, when women have come forward to challenge sexual harassment on campus, they have been met with enormous barriers and hurdles as a result of bureaucratic structures that work to protect the perpetrators of sexual violence, not the victims. It is understandable that victims of sexual violence are afraid to come forward- precedent has shown time and again that an institution will close ranks to protect the perpetrators of sexual violence, especially those who occupy senior lecturers and professorship positions. Early this June, Professor Sara Ahmed resigned from her position at Goldsmiths, University of London, citing cases of sexual harassment committed by her former colleagues to students that were repeatedly ignored by university officials. As Professor 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.”
Recently a campaign has been set up called "We Want Truth, Goldsmiths” comprised of a group of students independently investigating the sexual-harassment cover-ups at Goldsmiths, University of London. There would be no need for such campaigns if institutions actually followed their procedures regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, instead of colluding to protect and/or ignore sexual violence within the Ivory Towers.
We as academics, activists, independent researchers, and most importantly as feminists strongly believe that it should not have taken over ten months and a national media story to have prompted the termination of Dr Salter's employment at the University of Sussex. We also believe that the University of Sussex is equally at fault for allowing Dr Salter to resume his teaching and pastoral duties in light of the fact that they knew he had committed a violent assault, in particular to one of their students, endangering other cisgender and trans women. We additionally demand the following:
1. We strongly demand that Dr Salter not be hired to teach at any other university, whether in the United Kingdom or abroad.
2. That the University of Sussex and other British universities revisit and thoroughly revise their procedures of dealing with gendered violence and sexual harassment.
3. We demand that all British universities conduct thorough background checks on prospective employees to include asking prospective employees references about any inappropriate conduct of the person and specifically about sexual harassment and/or assault.
We pledge to set up a nationwide independent coalition against sexual harassment and gendered violence in universities to investigate these matters fully, including institutional transparency and accountability and information-sharing openly within and across institutions. This would include developing a nationwide support network for students and university staff who experience gendered violence and sexual harassment.
Full statement can be accessed here:
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