Harris: “zero tolerance” for sexual harassment in third level institutions

“Let me be clear; if there’s any old dinosaurs out there in the system, your day is gone.”

On Twitter this afternoon, Minister of Further and Higher Education Simon Harris vowed to adopt a “zero tolerance approach” to sexual violence and harassment in third level. 

The livestream video came in response to an article published in the Irish Times this morning, detailing the distress over a two year period of Dr Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin, who was continuously harassed by a professor at University College Dublin (UCD).

In the video this afternoon, Harris stated that he “had the pleasure” of meeting Dr Ní Shúilleabháin in recent weeks, and he thanked her for speaking out about “the most horrific experiences she had to endure”.

Harris continued: “She has my complete and utter respect, and my gratitude for what she has done.”

“But also, she shouldn’t have to do this,” Harris commended. “She shouldn’t have had to endure what she endured, and we need to make sure it never happens again.”

In July, Harris met with National Advisory Committe on sexual harassment and consent, which is chaired by the Women’s Council Ireland. At this meeting, Harris was reportedly “stunned” by the levels of sexual assault in higher education.

Speaking at the committee, Harris stated how he wants to be a minister to “right those wrongs”.

Ní Shúilleabháin was harassed from a period between May 2015 and July 2017, by colleague Professor Hans-Benjamin Braun, who reportedly left UCD in 2019.

In his Twitter livestream this afternoon, Harris spoke about his plans to work with the National Advisory Committe on sexual harassment and consent to bring “swift action” to send out a “very very clear message” that the department intends to take a zero tolerance approach when it comes to sexual violence. 

“Third level has led the way in so many ways,” he added. “Students and academic staff have done so much to promote societal change and societal good.”

Harris continued: “Sexual harassment is not an issue confined to third level, but I want the sector to lead.” 

“I want our institutions to be a place of inclusion, respect, diversity and safety. Safety for everybody, for staff and students,” Harris stated.

“Strong words must be matched by action; by clear tangible action, for frameworks and guidelines are worth nothing unless they’re implemented.”

Harris then detailed his work over recent weeks regarding the issue of sexual harassment and assault in third level institutions. Harris stated that he has written to “every president of every university and every higher education institution throughout the country”, and that he has “made it clear to them” that he expects each institution to present an action plan on tackling sexual violence and sexual harassment to the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Harris continued to explain how he has met with the HEA, and he wishes to “strengthen their role” in overseeing the implementation of the Framework for Consent in Higher Education Institutions in every university and college across the country.  

Harris has also commissioned a survey on sexual violence and harassment in third level, which will commence this autumn.

Harris continued: “I have asked every university president to provide consent classes to all incoming first year students and I’ve made it clear that in my view, such consent classes should be mandatory.”

“I have written to the Irish Research Council and Science Foundation Ireland, two bodies under my remit, and I have asked them how they can look at strengthening their own rules,” Harris added. “If they award research funding to an institution and there is an allegation of sexual harassment made against somebody on that research team, I believe they should know, and I believe there should be a linkage between that and funding as well.”

“I’ve also asked each institution and the Higher Education Authority to put in place a significant public awareness campaign.”

The Sexual Experiences Survey conducted by the Union of Students’ in Ireland (USI) at the beginning of the year found that over half of female students experience some form of sexual misconduct during their time in college.

The survey of 6,000 third level students suggested that 44% of students experience some form of sexual misconduct while in college.

On Twitter, Harris said: “Let me be clear; if there’s any old dinosaurs out there in the system, your day is gone.” 

“Third level, the higher education sector, the further education sector is to be an environment of respect, inclusion, tolerance and safety,” Harris continued.

“We’re adopting a zero tolerance approach,” he added. “We want an action plan from every institution, we want more powers for the education authority, we want a survey so we can hear the voices of staff and students and measure it.”

“We want to make sure that consent classes are provided to everybody. We want a linkage between some of these actions and research funding. We want a public awareness campaign.”

Harris stated: “You have my absolute determination that we are going to make sure that we make real progress in relation to this issue.”

Shannon Connolly

Shannon Connolly is the Editor-in-Chief of the 69th volume Trinity News, and a Senior Sophister student of English Literature and Philosophy. She previously served as Deputy Editor, News Editor and Assistant News Editor.