Just before I parted company permanently with the British university system, in fact my retirement was less than a week away at the time, I was invited to act as independent chair of a student disciplinary case. I was independent in the sense that none of the students involved was in my faculty. It was with a heavy heart that I agreed but, as it turns out, it was probably a good thing that I did.
The case involved a final year student accused of using a racial epithet and the person to whom the alleged epithet was aimed made a complaint. This was not the use of the dreaded ‘N-word’, this was the ‘P-word’ that is sometimes used in a derogatory fashion towards people from South Asia.
After watching a Premiership football match in the student union there had been some football banter between opposing supporters and quite an aggressive approach made — and not denied — by a Pakistani student to the student against whom the complaint was made. It is then alleged by the Pakistani student that the other white male student called him a ‘Paki’. The student vehemently denied this as did his friends and an independent witness who saw the incident and was concerned that it might turn violent heard nothing to that effect.
It was one person’s word against another yet somewhere along the convoluted process of the student disciplinary procedure someone decided that there was a prima facie case, and the disciplinary tribunal was formed. The members were presented with copious paperwork and CCTV video footage. The paperwork repeated the details above and the CCTV footage showed the Pakistani student and a friend walking off in one direction and several minutes later the accused student and his friends following. They all lived in the same Halls of Residence and that is where they were heading. The Pakistani student reported seeing the other group of students in the car park but reported nothing more. We were called on the basis of the CCTV footage to judge the motives of the accused student and his friends. It is telling that the Pakistani student did not attend the tribunal and did not respond to any further communications about the incident.
Essentially, we were being asked to evaluate an incident and to pass judgement on a student, possibly to the detriment of his university record or even his graduation, on the basis of an unsubstantiated word-of-mouth accusation and to judge whether he and his friends were walking with intent to confront the Pakistani student. Case closed, you may think, and I made every effort as chair to do so from the outset and to bring matters to a close in favour of the accused student. But matters in the woke hatcheries that now constitute British universities are never that simple.
One of my members voiced that the accused student “may have used the P-word” and I had to agree. Indeed he “may” have but as we had absolutely no evidence to that effect, no accuser present and the student in question had at least bothered to turn up at considerable inconvenience after his degree programme was finished, I considered the matter over. She came back, repeatedly, with her view and finally with the view that the Pakistani student must have “perceived” that the epithet had been used and that we ought to take that seriously. Again, I had to agree that he may well have “perceived” the insult but that his perceptions were insufficient to take matters further.
Eventually, after a long afternoon, the day ended, and we all went home. I considered that a good job had been done until the scribe sent me the notes from the meeting to approve in which was contained the view that the Pakistani student had perceived the insult and that action was recommended against the accused student. I strenuously intervened, the accusation was wiped from the record and the student heard no more from us other than that we had not found against him. However, on another day, with a different panel the outcome could have been very different.
The problem in the above case is obvious and it has permeated the university system. In common with other walks of life, feeling offended, or assuming that someone may have felt offended, is the same as being offended and is sufficient grounds to make an accusation, have it taken seriously and to expect an outcome in your favour regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person accused. Thus, it is a field day for people to make complaints and mainly against young men. Take the football banter in the example above. We can imagine many an alcohol-fuelled exchange of words between people of opposing views, opposing teams or even from different cultures. No violence occurs, no blood is shed, no physical damage is done, everyone feels a bit stupid afterwards and that is an end to it.
But extrapolate that to the young female student who willingly slips between the sheets with a male student, who then perceives that she has been sexually assaulted and makes an accusation. It does happen and the men in question are assumed guilty before trial, usually immediately excluded from study and their lives are probably ruined, even if the young lady later recants and admits she fabricated the accusation.
False accusations are not new, and I am not saying that the Pakistani student in the above case made a false accusation. But evidence remains crucial, even in the legal storms in the educational teacups of British higher education. If we head down the road of condemning people on the basis of allegedly offended parties’ imputed perceptions (and in absentia) that they have been offended then what we will see being done is judgement, but not justice.
Dr. Roger Watson is Academic Dean of Nursing at Southwest Medical University, China. He has a PhD in biochemistry.