EXCLUSIVE: 'Untouchable' NWU lecturer retires amid sexual harassment claims

2016-06-20 07:04


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Johannesburg - Anger over sexual harassment claims has boiled over at North West University, after a senior academic suddenly announced he’d be retiring a few months early due to health reasons.

Two of the complainants have spoken exclusively to News24 on condition of anonymity, out of fear of victimisation. The university has confirmed it is aware of "certain" allegations against him, but said it could not find any substantiation.

The academic himself told News24 he often gave people hugs, but nobody had ever indicated to him that this was "unwelcome". His name is known to News24, but is being withheld on legal advice.

Staff members who have tried to bring sexual harassment charges against him, however, believe he decided to leave before such charges caught up with him.

At least 14 women have attempted to complain, but a lecturer who assisted them said that, due to a lack of proper policy and procedure, the complaints were all dead in the water.

Allegations include that he touched women inappropriately and also that he has forcibly tried to kiss a female member of staff.

'He slid his hands down my hips'

One lecturer said that when she went on stage to receive her PhD, he congratulated her by kissing and hugging her, which was a standard procedure in that setting, but she felt uncomfortable.

"During the hug he slid his hands down my hips, rested his hands on my bum for a moment, and gave me a light whack," she recalled.

"I was totally shocked when it happened, so much so that I only came to my senses the next day and realised that he completely overstepped the line."

She said she then looked for the university’s sexual harassment policy to determine where she should direct a complaint, but there was no such a policy.

"I didn’t lay a complaint because I could not see where and how I could lay a complaint where somebody would act formally," she said.

"I’ve heard from other female colleagues that he is vatterig [fond of touching], but they tolerate it because nothing happens anyway when they lay a complaint," she claimed.

"The idea is created that, as long as he didn’t rape you, it was probably meant as a compliment," she said.

He also allegedly tried to kiss another member of staff by squeezing her chest tight against his, one of the women told News24.

Lingering hugs

A student, who laid a complaint against him, told News24 that the lecturer "touched my buttocks many times at social gatherings".

She also said he gave her "lingering hugs" on many occasions, even though she tried to draw back.

A former lecturer at NWU said at least six or seven female colleagues had told him that the academic made them feel uncomfortable or touched them in a way that embarrassed them.

"I remember specifically in 2009 at a function with limited seating, he sat down next to a colleague in her early twenties and constantly stroked her back. Everyone in the room saw it. At the same event, he touched a female friend’s bum when he greeted her," he said.

"Although we discussed these things amongst each other, there was a feeling of powerlessness because nobody had the confidence that the university would do anything about these complaints."

He said the man in question was a senior member of the faculty who may have influence over "appointments, promotions, performance bonuses and study leave. Nobody who worked in that faculty would dare place their professional careers on the line by laying a complaint".

He said, even if there were an investigation, the complainant was vulnerable to possible victimisation during the long time it took for an outcome, or for possible steps to be taken.

'This man was untouchable'

Hannelie Booyens, a former NWU lecturer, spoke out about the academic in a recent Facebook post, but without mentioning him by name.

She confirmed his name to News24.

Booyens said his reputation for inappropriate physical contact "is so well established that the senior university staff who investigated him never mentioned his name while discussing the case".

She said one of her former students told her that, when she was a first-year student, the seniors had warned her to never go into his office unaccompanied.

"A female professor had told me how he had slid his hand into her jeans while standing with his arm around her. But we all understood this man was untouchable."

Booyens claimed he had support from some of his colleagues, but had decided to retire, after being on campus for four decades, when he realised the tide in management was beginning to turn against him.

She added: "This secrecy serves to protect only the harasser. And it leaves those who experienced the harassment isolated and powerless to bring about real change to the toxic patriarchal culture that enables such abuse."

Another staff member, who helped facilitate the complaints, said when the women realised they were not the only ones affected, they wrote anonymous letters to the NWU’s institutional office – for lack of a clear process.

"We waited for months for feedback... The first complaints that I’m aware of were in 2015," she said.

When they did receive feedback, it became apparent that the university’s management had already known about the allegations of sexual harassment as early as 2013.

"The last and official feedback was that the women must testify against him if they want to make a case, and specifically, they have to testify in front of him," she said.

"There was no attempt, although it was suggested, to take them to a safe place where they can testify without him present. This feedback, after struggling for months, was enough to silence them," she said.

'It is time to say goodbye'

News24 has seen two messages the man sent to staffers on May 3, saying he was off sick and might have to undergo an operation. About a week later, on May 12, he sent a message announcing his retirement.

"I have reached the retirement age of 65 and it is time to say goodbye," he wrote.

"I am grateful that I can look back on what we have all achieved in this period. In our ongoing endeavour to make this a faculty to be reckoned with, much has been achieved and remains to be achieved. Thank you very much for the collegiality and, in some cases, for the blessing of friendship," he said.

In response to News24’s questions, he said: "I often give persons a hug, but not inappropriately."

Asked whether anybody ever indicated to him that they felt harassed, he said: "No one ever indicated to me. No one ever informed me that they found it unwelcome and that they would like me to discontinue it."

He said one of the things that played a role in his decision to retire at the end of May was that he had to undergo an operation. "I wanted to have ample time to recuperate from it," he said.

NWU spokesperson Louis Jacobs said the university "did become aware of certain allegations, but no substantiation could, however, be found for any of these and as a result there was no investigation".

He did not specify what the university meant by "no substantiation".

When asked what the university's comments were on claims that it did not create an environment for complaints against senior colleagues and that it fostered an impression that if he did not rape someone, his behaviour was meant as a compliment, Jacobs referred News24 the NWU behavioural manual.

"This [manual] is clearly stating the university's stance on these matters as well as the reporting and handling of such incidents."

Jacobs said the academic retired because he had turned 65 - which is the university’s retirement age - in May.

"In terms of the policy of the university, you can either decide to go at the end of your birthday month or the end of the year, but he made the decision to leave at the end of the month that he turned 65 and he informed the university officially," he said.

Standard retirement process

Jacobs said there was no need for any agreement with him, as he could choose on which date he wished to retire.

It was "thus a standard retirement process", he said.

Asked whether the university had a sexual harassment policy, he said: "Sexual harassment is being addressed as part of the behavioural manual (http://www.nwu.ac.za/content/policy_rules) of the NWU."

But the staff member who helped the women with their complaint said it was initially very difficult to find the university’s sexual harassment policy anywhere on the NWU’s website, "or any indication internally of a process, platform or channel through which their complaints and concerns could safely be lodged without the fear of victimisation".

"Throughout the process, to this day, I haven't seen the sexual harassment policy of the NWU, although I have heard such a document does exist," she said.

She also said that management did not help clarify the prescribed process either.

It appears that sexual harassment complaints are handled according to the university’s behavioural manual, which states that a complaint must be forwarded to an ombudsperson who would assess the complaints. There is, however, no clarity as to who exactly the ombudsperson is, and no policy guidelines for the assessment of a complaint.

The process is, therefore, vested in one person – who in this case decided against investigating the claims.

Read more on:    north west university  |  mahikeng

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