I’ve thought very hard over the last couple of days about whether to comment on the shocking case reported by the Independent last week of a (male) senior lecturer (Dr Lee Salter) at Sussex University who beat up a (female) student with whom he had been having an affair. In the end I decided that I had to comment, as the case raises some very important questions.
I didn’t know anything about this until last week so I have nothing to add to the account of the events and subsequent criminal conviction given in the newspaper and suggest you read the details there. I will restrict my comments to the wider issues.
On Friday 12th August, shortly after the news broke of Lee Salter’s conviction, the University released a statement which I thought raised more questions than it answered. It subsequently updated the statement to say that Dr Salter was no longer an employee of the University. Whether that means he was dismissed or that he resigned is not clear.
Among the statements made by the University in its press release is the following:
The University does not tolerate violence of any kind. However, in cases involving criminal charges, it is important that such matters are dealt with by the police and the courts, which take precedence over employment procedures. Pending the outcome of the criminal proceedings, the University kept the situation under review and monitored and assessed any risk to its students.
In my role as a Head of School at Sussex (a job I left just a couple of weeks ago), I had to deal with some disciplinary matters so I’m very familiar with the content of the relevant procedures. In fact I did more of these than you’d probably imagine, though I can’t write about the details because they are bound by confidentiality.
It is indeed the case that if a disciplinary case involves criminal elements then the established practice is to let the courts decide first before continuing with the disciplinary investigation. For one thing, a conviction in a criminal case usually makes the subsequent internal investigation simpler.
Acquittal in a criminal case does not mean dropping the disciplinary, however, as the standard of proof in a criminal case (“beyond reasonable doubt”) is stronger than that of an internal investigation which is that of a civil court (“on the balance of the evidence”). It is quite possible for the latter standard to be met when the former is not. So it was reasonable for the University to wait for the outcome of the criminal trial before proceeding.
However, the University of Sussex’s own disciplinary procedure also states:
“The University will take disciplinary action in accordance with its procedures against anyone who behaves in a violent manner including, should it be necessary, the immediate exclusion of the perpetrator from the campus.
Based on the account given in the Independent I find it difficult to understand why the University did not take this course of action in this case.
Of course a suspect is innocent until proven guilty, but suspension (paid) and exclusion from campus would not, in my view, have been unnecessarily prejudicial given the seriousness of the charges. Salter would not have been able to do teaching, but could have carried on research from home. The University’s failure to take this step is extremely worrying as in my view it gives inadequate consideration to the effect on the victim of the continued presence of the perpetrator.
For the record I should state that I have very good reasons for having zero tolerance to any form of violence, whether committed by staff or students or political protestors or security guards. You can read why here.
I’ve blogged before about the difficulties surrounding confidentiality and other issues disciplinary procedures in the context of sexual harassment. In that piece – which was actually about science departments – I tried to stress the importance of sticking to proper procedure, but I also explained that dealing with such matters after the fact is never going to provide a fully satisfactory remedy. What is needed is to change campus culture to ensure that abusive harassing and violent behaviour doesn’t happen in the first place. But applying procedures properly would at least be a start…