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Universities attempting to settle harassment complaints in-house

University of Tartu.
University of Tartu. Source: ERR

Estonian universities have processed more cases of harassment than have come to light in recent years. Criminal proceedings are not launched in most cases as matters are settled in-house.

In connection with a fresh harassment scandal at the University of Tartu, ERR asked six largest universities about how many similar cases have come to the attention of the management in recent years and how they are solved.

The University of Tartu is the biggest Estonian university with a total of 15,000 students, lecturers and other employees. Perhaps that explains why the university has produced the most harassment cases. The criminal case of former University of Tartu Library director Martin Hallik is still ongoing. Professor Mart Loog of the university's technology institute was acquitted in 2017, while the university found he violated good academic practice. ETV program "Pealtnägija" reported another possible harassment case at the university on Wednesday.

TalTech (Tallinn University of Technology) saw a professional conflict complaint last year that bordered on sexual harassment. Head of the university's HR department Tea Trahov said that the case was handled by a special committee and the alleged harasser was found to exhibit patronizing behavior with a sexual undertone.

"The person who exhibited questionable behavior was issued a warning by the university and demoted," Trahov said. "The person who filed the complaint left the university and received compensation."

Head of PR for Tallinn University (TLÜ) Sulev Oll said that the university had a sexual harassment complaint in the summer of 2018 when a student harassed a lecturer. The case was solved that fall. There were two other cases of unfair treatment on different grounds in the past three years.

The Estonian Academy of Arts had a single case last year where harassment was not proven in the end and has not seen any other complaints in the past three years.

There have been no reported cases in recent years at the Estonian Academy of Theater and Music, Estonian University of Life Sciences and the Estonian Business School.

That said, results of the study suggest the aforementioned cases are but the tip of the iceberg. The Estonian Association of Student Bodies finished the first study on sexual harassment in Estonian higher education in January. Of the 1,500 people questioned, nearly 73 percent said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment, with almost 15 percent reporting a physical component.

Assistant professor at the University of South California Aro Velmet who was involved as a consultant said that one of the main conclusions of the survey is that a lot of cases never reach an official complaint or are hushed up for other reasons.

Harassment varies

Estonian universities generally do not regulate sexual relations in their ethics codes, while all universities frown on such relationships. "No line has been drawn in the sand that persons in an academic relationship must not cross," said Andres Soosaar, former academic secretary for the University of Tartu.

The only university to more or less literally prohibit sexual relations between teachers and students is Tallinn University.

Depending on the university, people can turn to their faculty or structural unit head or college director. TalTech also has an anonymous tips system that is separate from the school's intranet. When solving harassment cases, universities proceed based on written ethics codes, equal treatment guidelines or good practice.

Rules do not equal prevention

Aro Velmet said that on the one hand, it is understandable these cases are handled quietly due to their delicate nature. "The sides reach an agreement, someone is paid a little compensation or is given peace of mind that they will not come into contact with that particular professor again and they can move on with their lives," he described how a person could be sent away only so they can continue harassing people somewhere else.

Velmet said that the new study's main conclusion is that harassment is far more common that previously thought. "Of course, we should also pay attention to putting out the fire to so to speak, but really, we should be concentrating on fire safety." Velmet added that people should be more knowledgeable about harassment and know who to turn to. Lecturers must also get a feel for lines that should not be crossed.

Editor: Marcus Turovski

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