The following text is a translation of an open letter to the Charles University and the Faculty of Arts that we published in February 2022 and sent in June 2022. Since February, some things have changed: shortly after the publication of the letter, the university email ceased to be anonymous, both institutions plan to have ombudspersons from the 2022/2023 academic year, and other changes are underway. We nevertheless believe that sexualised problem on universities is not an issue, that can be resolved once and for all and believe that our letter will continue to be relevant. If you want to support the demands, you can join the more than 500 supporters via this form. We welcome support from students, staff, and anyone else who is interested in the cause.
Sexualised violence (sexual harassment, sexual pressure, gender discrimination etc.) poses a serious issue in our society. Academic circles are, unfortunately, no exception. Those who experience a form of sexual violence suffer from mental health issues, lose faith in academic institutions and, in some cases, prefer to leave the university altogether. This creates an inequitable environment in which students (typically of female gender) are unable to reach their full potential. The academia is thus deprived of great talent and leaders of the future. To date, Charles University hasn’t addressed this issue, displaying a reluctance to expend the time and effort or allocate financial resources in order to resolve it. The newly appointed Rector of Charles University, Prof. Milena Králíčková, as well as the Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Dr. Eva Lehečková, have our support in their respective endeavours to initiate a change. On behalf of our student initiative Nahlas, we propose the following:
1. Prevention and public awareness
Sexualised violence doesn’t always stem from intentional predatory behaviour. It can also be a result of ill-defined mechanisms of power in student-teacher relationships, or unclear personal boundaries between students. Academia as an institution should strive to prevent sexualised violence, as well as any and all occurrences of discrimination or personal attacks related to it. It is imperative for the university to give a clear definition of the forms of behaviour unacceptable on university grounds, and to ensure all students and faculty members are fully informed by way of prevention training, as well as other means.
2. Regulations regarding relationships between students and educators
Intimate relationships between students and teachers do occur. Even though there is currently no regulation prohibiting such a relationship, the inherent imbalance of power renders it problematic. In addition to it being potentially detrimental to the two parties involved, the integrity of individual university departments, as well as the educational process itself might be negatively affected. In the academic community, regulations of such relationships should be introduced. If they occur, the university should prevent both parties from staying in direct pedagogical relationship, thus ensuring the process of evaluation remains fair and unbiased.
3. Transparent process of reporting sexual violence
The university website currently proposes four ways to deal with sexualised violence: contacting the perpetrator at your own risk and resolve the situation directly with them, getting in touch with the Charles University’s Psychological Counselling, reporting a case of sexual harassment by writing to an anonymous e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org, or filing an official complaint to the faculty’s Ethics Committee. In the last three scenarios, it is unclear as to who exactly gets access to the highly sensitive information, or how the individual reports are processed. Nor is it evident what reaction one may or may not expect to receive from the university, how long it can take the relevant bodies to respond and take action, or what consequences may then ensue for the parties involved. The process of reporting cases of sexualised violence and other inappropriate behaviour can inspire trust in students only if it is completely transparent. It is necessary for the university to specify procedures regarding this process, make them public, and ensure anonymity and protection primarily to those who fell victim to violent behaviour, not to the university’s own representatives.
4. Protection of Victims
Those who decide to give evidence regarding sexualised violence are put in a difficult and uncomfortable position. Not only are they asked to share highly sensitive information with strangers, they are also opening themselves up to the risk of being subject to negative response, or even personal vengeance on the part of academia, as well as the general public. The process of investigating sexualised violence should abide by the principle of victims’ anonymity and, whenever possible, minimize instances when victims are called to go through their account on multiple occasions, forcing them to relive the painful experience again each time.
5. The office of faculty ombudsperson
The university should be forthcoming by rendering the process of reporting cases of inappropriate conduct clear and simple. Investigating problematic behaviour should be up to a disinterested third party, not students whose academic endeavours might be negatively affected by their direct involvement in the case. To this end, we support the establishment of a faculty ombudsman, an independent office with adequate financial compensation, executed by a person able to lend qualified support to those in need.
6. Measures taken in cases of proven violent conductAccording to the rules currently in place, faculties’ scope of activity is very limited when it comes to dealing with predatory behaviour. Cases of sexualised conduct should be resolved even when the victim doesn’t wish to pursue legal action involving the state attorney’s office or the police. The university needs to establish specific institutional mechanisms in order to be able to investigate each case thoroughly and take adequate action. First, the institution should prevent any and all contact between the perpetrator and their victim(s) and, second, forestall further misconduct in the future. In cases of particularly grave misconduct, the university should have official mechanisms to deny entry to the workplace or issue a termination of employment to the members of academic staff when under investigation.