Addressing sexual violence on university campuses: Structure, culture and agency

Academic Views / Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

Mohan J Dutta (Dean’s Chair Professor of Communication and Director of the Center for Culture-Centered Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE) at Massey University) discusses strategies for improving universities’ responses to sexual violence on their campuses.

Between 2018 and 2020, at least five publicly circulated cases of sexual violence on university campuses in Singapore have thrown the lid off an endemic cultural problem long discussed in informal conversation, as well as in the media and civil society spaces. In May 2019 Education Minister Ong Ye Kung told Parliament that there had been 56 cases of sexual misconduct involving students from the six local universities in the three previous years. Recently, faculty member Jeremy Fernando was dismissed from Tembusu College amid allegations of sexual violence. This follows an earlier #MeToo moment when NUS undergraduate Monica Baey described the institution’s lackadaisical management of her own sexual violence complaint, posting first on Instagram with the story later appearing on South China Morning Post. The ensuing public attention resulted in a live-tweeted town hall meeting where students expressed dissatisfaction with the university management.

In August and September 2020, multiple digital platform users identifying themselves as NUS staff accused the former East Asia Institute (EAI) director Professor Zheng Yongnian of sexual harassment. A Twitter user identifying herself as a current employee noted that she had filed a police report against Zheng in May 2019 for incidents said to have taken place in May 2018. She also described subsequent bullying by institute staff when she filed a complaint with the university.

The recent story concerning Tembusu College first broke on social media when a Facebook post drew attention to the dismissal on disciplinary grounds. This has been followed by mainstream media news stories. Two students have given mainstream media their accounts of sexual abuse by Jeremy Fernando. A student group at NUS, Students for a Safer NUS, that emerged in response to the Monica Baey incident, has demanded accountability, transparency and support from NUS.

There is a recurring pattern of students using social media to express dissatisfaction with the management of sexual violence and seek change. The challenge of sexual violence on university campuses is a global problem, present from the US to the UK to India to Singapore, and reflective of the managerial university that is largely invested in reputation management, bereft of the ethic of care. University frameworks and processes enable the perpetuation of the problem. In this backdrop, Ms. Baey’s digital intervention emerges as a thread of the #MeToo movement, offering a much needed anchor to talking about the issue and finding solutions.

Between January and May 2018, the veteran Singaporean activist Braema Mathi and I had worked on building a culture-centred framework for addressing sexual violence in Universities at the Center for Culture-centred Approach to Research and Evaluation (CARE), then housed at the National University of Singapore (see Dutta, 2011 for a review of the culture-centred approach to social change). The CCA theorises that any social change intervention begins with the re-organising of meanings that exist at the interplays among culture, structure and agency (Dutta, 2011). I draw here on some of the lessons that emerged from our review published in the form of a white paper (Dutta & Mathi, 2018).

Structure, culture and sexual violence

Conceptualising sexual violence as constituted amid the interplays of culture and structure turns attention to the broader context within which violence is perpetuated.

First, sexual violence is a cultural problem. This means it is often normalised in the dominant values, norms and practices. From “checking out visually”, to sexually loaded comments, to propositioning, to more egregious forms of violence such as inappropriate touching and rape, sexual violence is often reflective of the culture within the organisation. Normative ideas such as “boys will be boys” legitimise and uphold sexual violence. Writing about this culture, feminist academic Sara Ahmed (2016) who resigned from Goldsmiths in protest against a culture of sexual violence, notes, “I am not talking about one rogue individual, or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution…We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalised and generalised as part of academic culture.”

Students have expressed concern about inadequacies in institutional handling of sexual violence for years, with the issue rising to particular prominence when undergraduate Monica Baey criticised NUS on Instagram in 2019. (Photo: Monica Baey, Instagram)

In Singapore, “Asian cultural values”, legitimised in elite discourse as an amalgamation of norms of Sinophone patrifocality (centred on the male father figure), hold up practices of sexual violence by embedding them in normative strictures of “saving face”. “Saving face” works to keep hegemonic structures intact while normalising a culture of silence. To speak up about experiences of violence is to go against the hegemonic cultural diktats that protect people in positions of power.

This brings us to the second point: cultures of sexual violence are embedded in how universities are organised, the ways in which expectations are set up, and the frameworks for addressing sexual violence. The absence of communicative resources and registers for those experiencing sexual violence is tied to the managerial logics guiding university structures. The rankings-driven managerial university is invested in public relations and reputation management, deploying large teams of PR professionals to monitor and surveil social media, and responding in PR-speak when crises emerge. An incident of sexual violence is therefore a crisis to be managed through risk management responses. Because of this emphasis, universities lack explicit resources, frameworks and pathways for addressing sexual violence. In the absence of transparent and visible resources, sexual violence perpetuates itself in various layers of the organisation, in various forms, and often without consequences.

The universities, reflecting the broader culture, appear to prefer that things not be brought to light, whether for “face saving” reasons, or because of a resistance to structures and processes that actively promote transparency. For instance, with regard to the EAI case, any resolution, knowledge about and understanding of improvements to offer people in weaker positions better protections appear limited. Insufficient knowledge about outcomes, procedures, and precedence can perpetuate permissive conditions where further abuses can more easily occur.

Third, sexual violence is an exercise of power. Forms of violence are tied to how power is distributed in the organisation, who holds power, and who has access to power. Existing structures within universities often uphold and perpetuate violence because of the self-protecting tendency of power. Those in power close in on ranks to protect others within their networks. To act on an incident of sexual violence is to break from the ranks. An expectation for managers within the university structure is thus implicitly laid out: to protect a perpetrator, especially if they are from within the ranks.

Similarly, networks of power often shape how senior faculty in administrative roles that are close to power, regardless of their gender, align themselves with powerful men that perpetuate sexual violence. The targets of sexual violence are often at the receiving end of an unequal power relationship. The consequences for speaking up can be severe, from shaming and stigmatisation to discipline and punishment either directly or indirectly.

The question of power is further complicated in an authoritarian context. No matter how strong processes appear on paper, they can be arbitrarily short-circuited or over-ridden by persons in authority in the absence of shared structures for participation of students, staff, and faculty. Limited checks on the power of authorities creates permissive conditions for abuse to continue. 

Fourth and most importantly, sexual violence is often marked by its communicative erasure. From the absence of policies explicitly addressing sexual violence, to the absence of language for defining and categorising it, to the absence of communicative structures within the university for addressing it, to the absence of data on its prevalence, the targets of sexual violence often feel unheard. This is exacerbated by dominant cultural norms that stigmatise talk on sexual violence, coded into the cultural hegemony of “Asian values”.

Consider for instance the opaqueness around the extent of sexual violence, measures taken, and preventive steps put into place. In the absence of compulsory reporting structures, it is possible that any publicly available anecdotes on specific cases are just the tip of the iceberg. Any kind of data in aggregate form that lays out the number of cases, the categories of cases, the forms of responses, and the preventive responses put into place are mostly missing. The dominant approach of sweeping it “under the carpet” translates into most cases being dealt with without community and public accountability. For instance, a complaint of sexual violence may result in a Full Professor being given a leave for a semester or a year, only to then return to the job. Or complaints might result in termination without disclosure, allowing the faculty member to secure a job elsewhere and continue his career.

Strategies for social change: Universities

The dominant response framework emphasising punishment fails to take into account the structural and cultural contexts of sexual violence, instead individualising the response. NUS has instituted harsher penalties, based on the assumption that this will have a sufficient deterrent effect. Perhaps this assumption is one reason why the important work of education, de-stigmatisation etc. all fall by the wayside.

In its responses to complaints of sexual violence in the past, NUS has referred to changes such as having drones monitor orientation games, or modifying shower cubicle doors. The author questions whether enough has been done to build voice infrastructures. (Photo: NUS)

The culture-centered approach to communication for social change foregrounds the central role of building voice infrastructures for those who experience the acts and effects of violence.

The recognition that sexual violence on university campuses is a cultural problem, reflective of power dynamics, embedded in organisational structures, and marked by communicative erasure suggests that solutions need to be committed to recognising the problem with culture, and changing it through the participation of communities that have experienced sexual violence or are its likely targets. Culture can be addressed through education of students, staff and faculty; prevention interventions addressing sexual violence; policies that are clear and provide for no-retaliation; disciplinary processes with clearly spelled out outcomes; and ongoing evaluation. Transparency, accountability to the university community, and democratic participation of its various publics are key elements.

Universities ought to have explicit resources for addressing sexual violence, including developing a clearly identified, accessible and independently governed unit. To ensure accountability and freedom, such a unit should be explicitly represented by elected faculty, staff and students on a rotating basis through a transparent election process. The committee must be equipped with professional expertise and undergo through iterative training at specified intervals. The outcomes of deliberations should be publicly available. Aggregate data on a quarterly basis should be made publicly available, including the anonymised record of each case, the nature of the case, the outcome, and the preventive steps taken by the university. While the policies, programmes, and resources are embedded within universities, links to outside organisations, such as with gender-based civil society groups, are key.

Feminist group AWARE, which runs the Sexual Assault Care Centre, has long called for more robust procedures in tertiary institutions. (SACC phone number: 6779 0282) (Photo: Google)

Universities should develop clear standards of communication. This includes clearly defining sexual violence as well as building two way communication processes for stakeholder input. The processes and frameworks must be communicated clearly to all members of the university. Dedicated resources need to be created for listening to the voices of students, staff and faculty. Also, developing clear messages around the definition and forms of sexual violence is integral to education and prevention campaigns. The consequences for sexual predators should be clearly specified, communicated and upheld. Similarly, the consequences for decision-makers for failing to follow due process of investigation should be articulated and implemented to hold administrators accountable.

It is not adequate merely to develop non-retaliatory policies. To develop mechanisms of protection of targets who report sexual violence requires awareness of the networks of power in the university. Sexual violence is embedded in networks and relationships of power, which sustain it throughout the university culture. Therefore, frameworks must protect the identities of those that experience sexual violence, while making transparent the decision-making processes. Building networks of community is central to supporting individuals that experience sexual violence, including ensuring access to counselling, peer support and specific institutional resources for coping with trauma.

Finally and most importantly, we must develop cultures of witnessing in the university. Bystander programmes and mandatory reporting programmes have been found to be effective. Notes Dougherty (2017), “Mandating bystander intervention can relieve the target of their sole responsibility for reporting and stopping predatory sexual behaviour, and rightly puts the responsibility of creating a healthier organisational culture on all members of the organisation.”

Strategies for social change: Student-staff-faculty activisms

Transformational change doesn’t come from power that decides to enlighten itself or through pragmatic dialogues with power behind closed doors. It emerges from the vocal and sustained demand for justice by those that experience the marginalising effects of power

A key tenet of the culture-centred approach is to turn to voice as the basis of activism. Recognising that the university is a site of activism, the possibilities of social change lie in organising and solidarities built across spaces. For university cultures to be transformed in ways that sustain over the long term, radically different meaning formations are imminently necessary. For instance, as noted by Ahmed, the meanings and language around “complaint” offer registers for social change. Raising a complaint, doing so vocally, and making visible the invisible networks of power that sustain sexual violence can bring about structural transformation through the presence of the voices of those making complaints.

That there is no shame in raising a complaint dismantles the hold of power. There is nothing more powerful than an insistently vocal resistive register. The culture of stigma is challenged when one claims the narrative control from the margins. Public mobilisation around voice is therefore vital to generate this cultural change.

National University of Singapore campus (Photo: Wikimedia)

In the absence of spaces for democratic participation and voice, the demand to democratise universities is deeply intertwined with securing transparency and accountability. Models of student-staff-faculty participation in democracies across the globe demonstrate that organising to demand spaces of participation is vital to placing checks and balances on the arbitrary deployment of power by management. Processes of student, staff and faculty collectivisation have historically served as key resources in holding university management to account.

It is therefore necessary to have a framework of solidarity connecting student-staff-faculty organising within universities, with civil society organising outside, and to public mass movements. A legal structure that holds universities accountable for addressing gender violence transparently and justly is likewise a necessity for sustainable change. For instance in the US, Title IX is a federal civil rights law passed as part of the Education Amendments of 1972, that protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programmes or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. Stating that, “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance,” it applies to any institution that receives federal financial assistance from the Department of Education, including state and local educational agencies.

The landmark Alexander v. Yale case was the first to apply Title IX to sexual violence, establishing that the sexual harassment of female students can be considered illegal sex discrimination. Yale University was sued by a group of students and one faculty member for failing to address the epidemic of sexual harassment on campus perpetuated by male faculty. The plaintiffs alleged rape, fondling and offers of higher grades for sex by several Yale faculty, with some of the cases based on a report authored by plaintiff Ann Olivarius.

That Title IX emerged out of the civil rights movement speaks to the vitality of building mass movements. In Asian authoritarian states, the language of “Asian values” has often been deployed to silence the demands for social, political, economic and cultural justice. This myth can be debunked by noting that the demand for justice is both inherently Asian and universal. Strategies of pragmatic resistance carried out through incremental dialogues keep the existing power structures intact.

University managers hold power over channels of communication established by universities; therefore, these are in most instances limited in their transformative capacities. Digital platforms bypass these dominant structures, building spaces for voices and amplifying these voices. These are powerful forces for building and sustaining mass movements.

With the courageous voice of Monica Baey, I had written that the #MeToo movement has arrived in Asia. The emergence of the Students for a Safer NUS offers one example of organising. With it, the movement against gender violence across the world brings the lesson that gender justice is a universal call. The democratisation of digital spaces has opened up communicative opportunities for articulating experiences of sexual violence that universities have traditionally silenced, as well as for raising demands for long-term changes. It takes a great deal of courage, particularly in an authoritarian climate where normative references to “Asian values” ensconce silences, to speak up and speak out. As more voices witness these incidences of sexual violence and raise demands for justice, it is my hope that we will continue to see transformations in the policy climate in addressing sexual violence in Universities in Singapore.


S. Ahmed, Speaking out (2016)

D. Dougherty, “The omissions that make so many sexual harassment policies ineffective”, Harvard Business Review (2017)

M.J. Dutta, “Communicating social change”, Structure, Culture and Agency (2011)

M. Dutta & B. Mathi, Sexual violence on university campuses: Communication interventions, Center for culture-centered approach to research and evaluation (CARE) (2018)

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