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University of Copenhagen
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Harassment and sexism at UCPH: Few students seek help

Culture shift — The MeToo wave is surging over Danish universities. Students speak of a soul-searching moment while calling for a new campus culture. At the University of Copenhagen, the Student Ambassador is ready to give students guidance on violations and harassment.

The MeToo wave is surging over Danish universities. Students speak of a soul-searching moment while calling for a new campus culture. At the University of Copenhagen, the Student Ambassador is ready to give students guidance on violations and harassment.

An open letter to the rectors of Danish universities describes a university world characterized by sexism and sexual harassment:

“We experience it in different degrees; in the classrooms, in the hallways, at counselling, in exam situations and in the student dorms – and it is a problem in our relations with staff, supervisors and fellow students,” write the authors of the letter, which was reprinted on 13th February on the news site Information (behind paywall).

The writers of the letter are anonymous, but Sana Mahin Doost, the chairman of the Danish Students’ Council (DSF), guarantees the letter’s authenticity, and that the senders are 48 female students. DSF has published the letter.

Sana Mahin Doost says that there might be an overlap between the letter writers and the anonymous activist group, which, according to the news site Ingeniøren, posted posters with allegations of ignored sexism at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) on the night of 5th February. DTU management made headlines by responding to the action and taking the posters down. The so-far anonymous criticism of Danish campus conditions is gaining traction because it enrolls itself in the MeToo revival movement, and because the sexism claims are backed up by data from two recent studies of sexual harassment against students by the Magisterbladet (DM) and the Djøf Studenter group. Both studies showed that sexism and harassment were experienced as a relatively widespread phenomena by students.

The results are in line with University Post stories in recent years of sexist study programme intro-sessions and student customs like the so-called “Men’s Friday Bar” on the economics programme. Still, the reported sexual harassment statistics among employees at the University of Copenhagen tell a different story, and there are very few cases. The Student Ambassador – UCPH students’ legal assistance body – also receives few inquiries about harassment and sexual abuse.

Tip of the iceberg

According to Sana Mahin Doost, DSF has, in the wake of the poster  action at DTU and the publication of the letter in Information, received statements from students with the message that universities have a problem with sexism and harassment. A problem that has so far remained hidden from view.

She says that we may have only seen the top of the iceberg “and that there are far more out there who have experienced things, and that are afraid to stand forth.”

Sana Mahin Doost says that DSF has agreed with the universities’ interest group Danske Universiteter to carry out a joint national questionnaire to find out what the extent of the problems with sexism and harassment is at universities.

“We can see that there are some very inappropriate cultures around the campuses. Both between students and staff and between students.”

Sana Mahin Doost, DSF chairman

DSF calls on individual universities to start having a conversation on what kind of behaviour it is that they want, says Sana Mahin Doost.

She says that the students themselves also have a responsibility to change the culture, and she speaks of a self-examination process in the student movement.

“We can see that there are some very inappropriate cultures around the campuses. Both between students and staff, and between students,” says Sana Mahin Doost.

“We are angered by these things happening, and that no action has been taken to deal with it before. This also shows that something has to happen now and it cannot wait any longer,” she says.

At UCPH, students typically ask for counselling on other problems

At the University of Copenhagen, Rector Henrik Wegener has reacted to the media debate on sexism by promising to clarify how the country’s largest university handles cases of harassment and sexism against students.


Tweet from UCPH Rector Henrik Wegener, 13th February, 2018

Someone who has insight into what students have to deal with at the University of Copenhagen is Student Ambassador Bo Gad Køhlert, who has been on the job since 1st April, 2017. His office received 424 inquiries from students in 2017. Five of them were about mental and physical abuse – just over one per cent.

“I have only been here for just under a year now. I probably only hear a relatively small part of what likely takes place. We have had a handful of inquiries that either specifically or indirectly are about sexism or harassment. The inquiries also have other elements, and this is typically what the students refer to. Typically, it’s about their study programme situation, how they move on, how they navigate through some process where they at the same time feel violated or harassed,” he says.

Bo Gad Køhlert says that he has asked himself why students do not specifically call on his office in violation cases. He has no better explanation than that the problem is difficult for students to handle. It would imply an unpleasant confrontation with the person accused of doing something wrong.

Bo Gad Køhlert, studenterambassadør ved KU“It could be an instructor, or it could be another student you have in your network, and this is something that makes it difficult to bring it out into the public space,” he says.

No, sexual harassment is not allowed

The starting point for the student ambassador’s guidance is the university’s code of conduct. This is where it states what the university should do if a student experiences something sexually harassing and where a student can get help.

I can help the student to clarify their own situation in full confidentiality

Bo Gad Køhlert, student ambassador

“The code does not express anything specifically about sexual harassment, but it says something about threatening or harassing behaviour. If students experience it, or if they themselves exhibit threatening or harassing behavior, this code of conduct is applicable,” says Bo Gad Køhlert.

The code stipulates that students should act considerately towards fellow students.

“And this covers most of it,” says Bo Gad Køhlert.

The code only applies to students, but for staff at the University of Copenhagen, the staff policy states that “The University considers bullying, sexual harassment and abuse of all kinds – verbal, written, including electronic, physical, psychological – to be unacceptable.”

The rector can expel harassing students

“I can help the student to clarify their own situation in full confidentiality. I usually ask what happened to find out what system of rules we are operating under, and then I speak calmly to the student about what they should do,” says Bo Gad Køhlert.

The student ambassador has however – in line with other employees at the University of Copenhagen – a duty to contact the police if something criminal appears to be going on.

The penalty for breaking the university’s code of conduct can in serious cases be expulsion from the university and a ban on ever returning. It is the rector who has the power to decide on this kind of sanction. Bo Gad Køhlert has no knowledge of cases of sexual harassment or violations where this has happened. But the public is not informed if rector takes the serious step of expelling a student.

The UCPH code of conduct also states that it is the relevant head of department or dean that is to investigate cases of harassment, including hearing other parties in the case – including, of course, the accused person. It can be unpleasant for a student who has been subjected to an assault to have to relate to the person who has harassed him or her,” says Bo Gad Køhlert.

In this way, cases of harassment and violations differ from the everyday issues that, say, have to do with the workings of university administration.

“Here we are at the heart of a person’s well-being, and this can be very tough. Serious things can happen to students who have done serious things to another student. You set a lot of things in motion here,” says Bo Gad Køhlert. “But that does not mean you should not do it.”

We are relating to many-faceted human beings

One thing is the regular cases that UCPH needs to handle legally. Another thing is the general allegation without address to anyone in particular, which has been raised in the anonymous letter, published by DSF, about a culture of harassment at the university. Is this something that Bo Gad Køhlert is able to relate to?

“I have the opportunity to relate to it in my annual report. If I can see that this is something that we, as a university, need to be better to relate to. My mandate is to strengthen the legal certainty of students, and what we are talking about in this case is a general social culture or working culture. But as soon as there is a specific case, then I can look at it just as I look at complaints over exams or applications for exemptions. I have not yet experienced a specific case of sexual harassment or abuse.”

The student ambassador is available to students, whether or not it will result in a case, says Bo Gad Køhlert.

“I try to decode whether the student who comes to the office, is receiving personal support, for example by a psychologist. Because this can allow the student to come to terms with a decision on whether to proceed with a case or not to, and at the same time treat the trauma that he or she has been exposed to. We are relating to many-faceted human beings, not just rules.”