Sex scandals scar

By Caro Malherbe and Ray Mahlaka.

SEXUAL harassment allegations against Wits university lecturers have dented the university’s reputation. At least three academic staff members have been suspended for alleged sexual harassment and have been put on special leave, pending an inquiry.

Wits spokesperson Shirona Patel said the coverage of the sexual harassment cases in the media has cost thousands of rands in reputation damage.[pullquote align=”right”]”Reputation is everything in academia as well as the world of corporate and consumer brands”[/pullquote]

“We have adopted an open and transparent approach pertaining to this matter, without compromising the legal processes underway…However, we can facilitate the communication as much as we like, but if we do not fix the real problems in our system, these issues will recur,” Patel said.

Communication strategist Sarah Britten said that in a country where people are aware of gender based violence, institutions such as Wits should be criticising society.

“Scandals like this [sexual harassment] could scare off potential students and staff and cost Wits money in lost fees and the inability to attract the best academics. “Reputation is everything in academia as well as the world of corporate and consumer brands and this has been damaging,” Britten told Wits Vuvuzela.

Britten said that the Sunday Times article on senior drama lecturer Tsepo wa Mamatu will linger in people’s memories. “In cases like this, it’s important to create the perception of transparency and swift action. I’m not sure they have actually done this,” she said.

Word of mouth can harm the reputation of the university more than the reported stories in the media, said Britten.

Public relations consultant Chris Vick said the university has been “relatively successful” in demonstrating that it will not tolerate sexual harassment. “But the key is to maintain momentum by formulating and announcing steps, such as policies and practices, to ensure this does not happen again and to communicate these to students, in particular, in a convincing way.”

Students’ thoughts

Melissa Lowrens, 2nd year BA, said she felt the scandals that were exposed this year have caused “irreparable damage to Wits’ reputation.”

Lowrens said people often tell her: “Oh, that school that was in the paper for sexual harassment.” However, Imra Schaik, 2nd year BA General, said that he remains a proud Witsie even after the scandals. “My friends who are at UJ [University of Johannesburg] still think I’m a boss for getting into Wits.”

 

 

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Come forward: have your say on sexual harassment

An independent inquiry into sexual harassment reporting is now in full swing.

It started last week with two top powered legal teams from the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) and Norton Rose Legal Practices.

They are now making a call to all students to come forward with their stories or views on how to improve the system.

This is a separate inquiry from the internal investigation by Wits into staff members. The legal teams are making a further call to students who have been harassed, or any member of the university community with a view on the matter, to come forward.

A lawyer from Norton Rose, Joe Mothibi, said that the inquiry was aimed at finding out “what systematic problems there are in the university with regards to sexual harassment. What mechanisms are in place, are they adequate and how they can be improved”.

CALS Attorney, Jameelah Omar told Wits Vuvuzela that she was finding it “a big problem with a trend that students don’t actually feel comfortable speaking to anyone in the university about sexual harassment.”

Mothibi said: “We are doing this to let people know that we are receptive to their complaints”. The legal team would be supportive and students would not be made to feel that they did something wrong.

“The biggest difficulty that we have had is with students coming forward. I think there might be some confusion because there are two paralleled commissions running. Ours is not to look at specific incidences, but to look at trends so that preventative measures can be put in place so that sexual harassment doesn’t happen of any sort.”

According to Omar, the university was handling specific incidences of sexual harassment privately.

Mothibi added: “Cognisant of the rights of the alleged perpetrator and the victims, the university is dealing with it fairly for both sides and with maturity and sensitivity.”

By students coming forward with their views it would help determine how widespread the problem is and what needs to be done.

Omar explicitly added that by speaking up, “it is not contingent on them [students] actually making a formal report. So, say a student was actually sexual harassed they can come to us and tell us their story without it necessarily going any further. They are not forced to make any formal complaint.

“It is entirely confidential, we don’t need formal complaints, we don’t need evidence, and we don’t need anything to be proven.”

Mothibi said: “The idea is that the students contact us directly and come and see us under the strictest confidential terms with absolute assurance that it won’t get back to any other people in the university. “

Anyone who wishes to speak with the legal team can contact them via email: Joe Mothibi on joe.mothibi@nortonrose.com or Jameelah Omar on jameelah.omar@wits.ac.za