Rape culture and the neoliberal university

Warwick University’s response to sexism, racism and rape culture on campus has been appalling but sadly predictable, writes Rachel Jones, a Warwick graduate, history teacher and NEU activist.

Demonstration at Warwick University on 6 February 2019 against sexism, racism and rape culture on campus. Photo: Arianna Tassinari (via Twitter)

In the words of Rose Marie, ‘Illness is one of the things that men do to women’. Rose Marie (Barbara Flynn) is a notably non-binary character in Andrew Davies’ 1980s BBC drama series A Very Peculiar Practice, in which she works a GP in a campus medical centre. The setting is openly based on Warwick University. So it’s hard to think Rose would disagree that the recent farrago at this same institution is all about what men, but also the neoliberal university, do to women.

A short summary of events, for those unfamiliar with the story. A group of male undergraduate students engaged in regular group chats on social media which subsequently became public, the content of which included racist, antisemitic and above all viciously misogynist language. Some of the comments specifically discussed rape in reference to named women, who were also undergraduates at the university.

After an initial investigation, some of the men were banned from campus for a period of ten years which upon appeal was reduced to only one year. Unsurprisingly, victims report feeling betrayed and at risk. They believe the university paid scant attention to their needs or feelings. Other students have suggested that the men had impressive legal representation and this had an influence on the result of their appeal.

When Vice-Chancellor Stuart Croft released a statement in the face of mounting criticism and an alumni backed campaign that quickly collected over 70,000 signatories to a letter condemning the university’s handling of the affair, it didn’t fail to disappoint. As Eloise Millard reports in The Guardian, ‘Stuart Croft dedicated the first 200 words of his statement on the matter to detailing how profoundly he was impacted. His comments lack any empathy for the women who read how their bodies would be raped and beaten, and an understanding that this isn’t an isolated incident’.

A perceived over-concern with the rights of the perpetrators at the expense of the victims had unpleasant resonances of the case of Brock Turner, the US college student who was sentenced to just six months in jail for rape. In the Warwick case, the fact that the university Press Officer was one of the members of staff charged with investigating the disciplinary offences called to mind the powerful documentary The Hunting Ground (2015). The latter paints a picture of a US higher education system completely in thrall to corporate interests, where revenues from elite sports teams renders them untouchable, at the expense of women facing endemic sexual violence on American campuses.

It has since been revealed that the guilty parties will not be returning to Warwick University. But why should this have been their choice? Warwick University can hardly claim it was afraid of the cost of legal action, given the things it can find money for: £11m on a centre for Warwick Business School in The Shard, a £30m redevelopment of its site on the main Warwick campus, and VC Stuart Croft’s own £280,000 pay packet spring to mind.

With money for all that, it seems a shame they couldn’t prioritise victim support and ensuring that the women targeted would never again, whatever the financial cost to the university, have to share a campus with men who discussed raping them with such disturbing glibness. This is not a question of free speech: the university can and should do everything within its power to ensure an environment free of the kind of open hatred displayed by these group chats.

A Very Peculiar Practice remains a prescient warning about the direction UK higher education was headed in at the time, with its unfeeling, amoral senior management more interested in profit margins and business contacts than in genuine education or student welfare. But it was also of its time. As Mark Fisher wrote in 2011, ‘What Davies satirizes in A Very Peculiar Practice—especially the concerted attempts by unscrupulous administrators and ambitious academics to link research to corporate and military interests—is now taken for granted, and there’s a quaint charge about returning to a moment when such opportunism could be the object of mockery.’

So in some ways, the response of the university to recent events is appalling, but not surprising. Warwick University is no stranger to controversy over the priorities it demonstrates on a depressingly regular basis, and those priorities should themselves come as no surprise in the institution that was, apparently, Thatcher’s favourite.

For example, in 2014, it merely banned the rugby club from campus bars and required members to attend consent workshops after a range of despicable, drunken, violent behaviour; at the same time as calling the police in to attack peaceful protesters. The fact that the university was later pressured to partially back down and apologise for this incident following an occupation of a conference centre reminds us that Warwick also has a history of resistance on the part of many students and staff to its neoliberal agenda.

Warwick is now, though, utterly unremarkable in a higher education system given over in its entirety to interests utterly uninterested in the advancement of learning or in making a genuine commitment to the fight for equality. It would be a stretch to claim that recent student and alumni protests over the rape chat disciplinary response were mainly motivated by opposition to the neoliberal agenda, but there are clear links between the way the university responded in this case, the way it operates within the UK higher education system in general, and the way that whole system is now headed.

We are now way beyond absurdities and immoralities satirised in A Very Peculiar Practice, but resistance is building. Protests have taken place, bringing together diverse groups increasingly angered and concerned by the rise of visible, violent misogyny and the inadequate response of many institutions to it. An active campaign of current and former students has helped push Warwick University into agreeing to a review of disciplinary procedures and support for victims. The courage of the women targeted in speaking out, and the solidarity shown by so many is what has ensured the men involved in the original conversations will not be returning to the university.

Socialists must not tolerate any suggestion that offences of this nature are to be in any way absolved with the catch-all label of ‘banter’ or fail to see that such violent words are on a continuum of behaviour that includes actual sexual assault and physical violence against women. And we need to continue to fight the notion that our higher education system should be a free market, because that doesn’t benefit students, female or otherwise.

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