The work of my journalism students this week will, I think, do more to address the problems of staff-student relationships on Wits campus than all the measures announced by the university.
Our new crop of students have only been with us four weeks when – assisted by some of last year’s graduates – they had to take on last week’s Sunday Times front page story of a lecturer suspended for allegations of the sexual abuse of young female students in the Drama Department.
I threw out a challenge at the beginning of the week: You have to make this your story, I said. You have to take ownership of it. This is happening in the same building that we are in. It is your story.
They went to cover Drama Department meetings where students and lecturers confronted each other over these issues; they were infuriated when they got chucked out of one of these meetings; they were shunted from pillar to post, as many university staff tried to push responsibility upwards; they chased students, some eager to talk, many reluctant; they had to face up to that faction which were making accusations of racism because last year the student newspaper fingered, but did not name, a politics lecturer accused of being a “sex pest” – and now everyone was rushing to name culprits.
It can be tough, because they would normally treat professors with kid gloves and some respect, yet we are encouraging them to probe and and push and confront these very people.
This is the stuff of learning. I would have preferred them to have a few more weeks’ experience, but there is nothing like being thrown in the deep end of a complex, ethically-challenging, breaking story.
Our position as teachers and mentors is also complicated. We want them to own the story and the newspaper – both print and online – that they produce. We want them to do what students need to do: be bold, challenging, and experimental. Yet, we have to guide them to be careful, fair and honest in how they tackle this kind of story which does tremendous damage to the reputations of individuals.
It is also not easy when they are taking on your colleagues in the faculty. And this is what happened. They came back within 24 hours to say they had evidence of another “pest”, a lecturer accused of inappropriate behaviour towards female students – and this one was a close Media Studies colleague.
Furious debate ensured. Were five or six accounts enough evidence to run with the story? Would the accusers give their names? Should they name the accused, even though there had not yet been a formal complaint? How do we deal with the fact that one of the accusers was our own student? That debate a few hours before the paper was going to press was the richest learning experience of all – for me as much as the students.
One of them said to me: “Is there still time to register for medicine?” That was because at the beginning of the year, I had told them they were in for a challenging time. “If you want an easy course, rather go to medicine,” I had joked. Half-joked.
At the end, they did the story, they named the accused lecturer, and I thought they treated him as fairly as one can under difficult circumstances. The university announced a campus-wide inquiry to look at policy and practices that deal with this universal problem. No doubt it will take months, there will be proposals that will go through many committees and over time practices may shift.
When I saw the students’ news posters all over campus on Friday morning, and then their front page, I knew that every culprit among university staff would be nervously rushing to find out if they had been exposed. The “sex pests” – or most of them – would be more careful from now on, knowing they had a high risk of exposure.
This will have an immediate impact on inappropriate staff-student relationships – much more so than the university’s complex and slow institutional responses. It was a dramatic demonstration of the power and responsibilities of the media.
Hopefully the students saw it too.