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NUS steps up approach to sexual misconduct cases; swifter police reporting, exploring bystander training

NUS steps up approach to sexual misconduct cases; swifter police reporting, exploring bystander training

A sign of the National University of Singapore is displayed at the campus entrance, Aug 7, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Catherine Lai)

SINGAPORE: After a spate of sexual misconduct cases, the National University of Singapore (NUS) outlined plans to step up its approach to such incidents, including reporting offences to the police promptly and exploring bystander training. 

In an email to students, alumni and faculty members seen by CNA, NUS president Professor Tan Eng Chye noted the recent cases of sexual misconduct in local universities, with some in NUS involving faculty members. 

"Regardless of whether these incidents took place on or off-campus, such behaviour threatens the safety and well-being of our NUS community. It desecrates the campus atmosphere which is precious to all of us," he wrote.

"The sad truth is that no matter how hard we try, sexual misconduct cannot be completely eradicated. Yet, we must be unrelenting in our desire and effort to tackle the issue head-on. Our approach has to be holistic, just, transparent and sensitive."

READ: Recap: NUS staff dealt with for alleged inappropriate behaviour, sexual misconduct this year

After a recent review, NUS has "further strengthened" its framework in handling cases of sexual misconduct, wrote Prof Tan. 

Building a culture of respect is a top priority, he said, adding that all students and faculty in NUS should be aware of the risk of sexual misconduct, are committed to averting it and know how to "manage it institutionally". 

BYSTANDER TRAINING

While all students and staff currently undergo training about respect and consent, NUS plans to introduce refresher courses to reinforce this, said Prof Tan. 

The university is also exploring bystander training "to emphasise the important role and social responsibility of bystanders" in spotting sexual misconduct and taking appropriate action. 

"There are additional plans to conduct workshops to build an inclusive and respectful culture on campus, and to strengthen training for staff who are likely to be first responders in cases where sexual misconduct has occurred," he added. 

Changes have also been made to the university’s internal process to ensure that police reports are made more promptly. NUS is required by law to report any arrestable offences, including voyeurism, outrage of modesty and rape, Prof Tan said. 

For arrestable offences, NUS will now ensure that a police report is made no later than two weeks after the conclusion of Board of Discipline or Committee of Inquiry deliberations, he wrote. A police report may be filed earlier if circumstances warrant.

Noting that being more open and transparent about sexual misconduct offences is "critical to building trust" and cultivating a culture of respect on campus, Prof Tan said the university will share pertinent information about the allegations and investigation findings with the NUS community in a "proactive and timely" manner. 

"We will continue this practice, where feasible, without compromising the privacy and well-being of victim(s)," he wrote. 

In the recent case of Dr Jeremy Fernando, who was dismissed from Tembusu College in October after his intimate relations with a student came to light, students had criticised NUS for its handling of the case, citing a lack of communication. The first complaint against Dr Fernando was lodged on Aug 27, and the first email to the student body on the matter was sent on Oct 18. 

READ: NUS has 'fallen short' in handling Jeremy Fernando's dismissal, says Tembusu College rector Tommy Koh

READ: Sacked NUS professor had 'intimate association' with undergrad; university makes police report

HALF-YEARLY REPORT

To raise awareness of sexual misconduct in the NUS community, the university plans to issue a report every six months on cases of sexual misconduct involving staff and/or students, said Prof Tan. The facts of each case will be redacted to prevent victims from being identified. 

Touching on two recent cases - the dismissals of Dr Fernando and Professor Theodore Hopf - the university’s president said this is evidence of NUS treating cases of sexual misconduct involving staff seriously. 

Adding that disciplinary action will be swift for staff members who have breached the Code of Conduct, he said: "There are instances of sexual misconduct involving the interplay of unequal power relations, which are more egregious. This is why the University must treat them very seriously." 

READ: NUS dismisses professor over sexual harassment of student

The university’s Victim Care Unit will also be renamed the NUS Care Unit. It currently supports student victims, but by the second quarter of 2021, it will extend its care programmes to NUS staff, announced Prof Tan. 

The Victim Care Unit was set up in August 2019, months after undergraduate Monica Baey spoke out online about how NUS responded when she was filmed in a hostel shower by a fellow student. 

READ: NUS sets up Victim Care Unit to help victims of sexual misconduct

"Many of the above measures will be progressively introduced over the next few months. This is the University’s commitment to all staff and students. As NUS management - it is our duty. You have my assurance that no effort will be spared on our part to ensure a safe and conducive campus environment," wrote Prof Tan. 

"Yet, we need to face the reality that we are dealing with a highly complex and multifaceted challenge. We need to work together and not against each other."

COMMON POLICY FOR STAFF AND STUDENTS

Over the last 18 months, the Office of the Senior Deputy President and Provost at has reviewed the university’s staff sexual harassment and misconduct policies and set up a cross-campus committee on sexual misconduct by staff, said the university’s president. 

The team is now evaluating how to best implement the committee’s recommendations, and more details will be shared later, he added. The university will also develop a common sexual misconduct policy applicable to all staff and students. 

Reaffirming the university’s stand against sexual misconduct, Prof Tan wrote: "Every victim of sexual misconduct is one too many. The University takes a zero-tolerance approach towards sexual misconduct."

"We have instituted strict policies and regulations to tackle such misconduct. Enforcement will be swift, firm and unwavering."

Source: CNA/hw(ac)

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