NUS to step up measures to tackle sexual misconduct and tighten internal processes

NUS plans to develop a sexual misconduct policy that applies to both staff and students. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

SINGAPORE - The National University of Singapore (NUS) is taking more steps to tackle sexual misconduct in the wake of several recent cases that involved its faculty members and following a recent review.

In an e-mail circular to students, staff and alumni on Thursday (Dec 17), NUS president Tan Eng Chye laid out the measures the university will implement to strengthen its processes of handling cases of sexual misconduct, which will include the training of staff and bystanders.

Many of these measures will be implemented over the next few months.

The university plans to develop a sexual misconduct policy that applies to both staff and students. It will also provide the NUS community with a report every six months on sexual misconduct cases involving its staff and/or students. But the facts of each case will be redacted to prevent victims from being identified.

It will soon introduce refresher courses for staff and students to reinforce respect and consent, and it is exploring bystander training to emphasise the importance of this role in spotting sexual misconduct and taking appropriate action.

There are also plans to conduct workshops to "build an inclusive and respectful culture on campus, and to strengthen training for staff who are likely to be first responders in cases where sexual misconduct has occurred", said Professor Tan.

He added that the Victim Care Unit, which currently supports victims who are students, will be renamed the NUS Care Unit. By the second quarter of next year, this unit will be provided resources to extend support to NUS staff.

Prof Tan also said the university has tightened its internal processses to ensure that it will complete any reporting of arrestable offences to the police no later than two weeks after its board of discipline, for students, or the committee of inquiry, for staff, has concluded its investigations.

A police report may be filed if the circumstances warrant it, he said, adding that under Section 424 of the Criminal Procedure Code, NUS is required by law to report any arrestable offence listed. This includes voyeurism, outrage of modesty and rape.

In addition, the university has set up a committee to look at sexual misconduct by staff, and will share more details on how it will implement its recommendations later.

Acknowledging that being open and more transparent about sexual misconduct offences is critical to building trust and a culture of respect on campus, Prof Tan said NUS would continue sharing pertinent information about allegations and investigation findings with the university community in a proactive and timely manner. This will be done, where feasible, without compromising the privacy and well-being of victims, he assured.

The latest measures come after several cases of sexual misconduct involving NUS staff that made the news this year.

They include Professor Theodore G. Hopf, the provost chair professor of the department of political science in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, who was dismissed on Dec 1 for sexual misconduct with a student.

NUS also reported in November that Professor Zheng Yongnian, a former director of its East Asian Institute, had behaved inappropriately with a subordinate by hugging her without her consent during a work meeting.

Dr Jeremy Fernando, a former Tembusu College fellow, was sacked on Oct 7 following allegations of sexual misconduct made against him by two students.

In Thursday's e-mail, Prof Tan said: "Regardless of whether these incidents took place on or off campus, such behaviour threatens the safety and well-being of our NUS community. It desecrates the campus atmosphere, which is precious to all of us.

"The sad truth is that no matter how hard we try, sexual misconduct cannot be completely eradicated. Yet, we must be unrelenting in our desire and effort to tackle the issue head-on. Our approach has to be holistic, just, transparent and sensitive."

He noted that sexual misconduct is a growing concern for universities around the world. In 2019, Harvard University received 500 complaints, Yale University received 298 complaints, and Stanford University had 187 reported incidents of sexual misconduct.

In the same year, in Singapore, a total of 1,605 cases of outrage of modesty were reported to the police. The Ministry of Education reported that in the three academic years 2015, 2016 and 2017, the six local universities handled a total of 56 student-related disciplinary cases involving sexual misconduct, 14 of which took place outside campuses.

Prof Tan also said that NUS is seeing more individuals coming forward to file reports against alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct.

"Even though it may not augur well for the image and reputation of the university, I feel it is a good thing that more individuals are stepping forward. It shows a certain level of trust in the institution," he added.

"No student or staff should suffer in silence. NUS will continue to strive to provide a safe and conducive platform for affected parties to verbalise and share their experiences and come forward in confidence."

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