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From the file

Campus Justice II | Universities everywhere are failing to respond to widespread allegations of sexual assault and harassment

Fending for themselves

Fending for themselves

Thursday 1 July 2021

How three women at Cambridge found themselves taking on what they call “vigilante justice”


It was an overcast spring evening and three women gathered to plan for an important meeting. They were students, each of them, at Queens’ College, Cambridge. And they had one other thing in common. They had just discovered that they all had allegations against the same man – a fellow student at Queens’ – ranging from sexual misconduct to rape. 

The three women, whom we will call Woman A, Woman B and Woman C, had met to talk through what they were going to tell the college’s welfare adviser the following afternoon. Each had an important story to tell – and stories that corroborated one another’s accounts in important respects about the man, who we will call Man D. 

This was not just a difficult thing to talk about: one of the women recollected feeling sure that telling their stories would have consequences – that the college authorities would have to be spurred into action by three women coming forward with such similar allegations about this man’s disregard for their consent. 

“I just remember really believing that we were going into this room and we were going to be listened to, and that the response would be swift.”

The man they were telling, after all, was a senior figure in the college – a man with responsibility for pastoral care. But things went so disastrously awry that, six months after their first meeting, one of the women was forced to leave university for a year and was under investigation. For following what she understood to be the college’s advice, she was being charged with bullying the man she had sought to complain about.

The meeting that spring afternoon, in May 2018, was with Tim Harling, one of the college’s welfare advisers. He was responsible for pastoral care for the community of 950 graduate and undergraduate students at Queens’, one of the 31 independent colleges to which students at the university are attached. Students take exams set by the central university, but their housing and care is organised at a college level. 

The collegiate system is distinctive: getting into Cambridge, one of the world’s grandest universities, means getting into one of these tiny institutions. But it also means that the problems with sexual harassment and sexual violence that afflict the whole of higher education are particularly intense. 

Their small size reduces the distances between likely complainants, respondents, staff and students. People are more likely to have conflicts of interest and lack proper training. At the same time, it faces the normal problems for institutions: the predominance of middle-aged men means they are run by people with little experience of these issues.

Queens’ itself is an old, grand college – famous for its distinctive architecture: the college’s logo is a diagram of the “Mathematical Bridge”, Queens’ distinctive and much-photographed river crossing. Founded in the 15th Century, Erasmus studied at the college – as did Stephen Fry and Andrew Bailey, the current governor of the Bank of England.

Harling was a rather distinctive figure within this old institution – for one thing, he was, strictly, the Reverend Tim Harling. He was Dean of Chapel, an Anglican clergyman. Harling had joined Queens’ in 2013 after several years working as chaplain at HM Prison Peterborough. 

“The prison system is obviously very different to College, but there has been a similar thread linking my previous work: relating to young people in positions of high stress,” he said in a profile in the college’s magazine in 2015. “I’m there to help students articulate their feelings and I see little difference between welfare and chaplaincy.”

Despite their reservations about speaking to him, the women were assured by a friend that Harling was a nice man, with the best interests of students at heart. Students involved in welfare had referred the women to Harling as his role in the college encompassed taking on these cases.

By the time of the women’s meeting, Harling had resources to deploy. Queens’, he wrote, had a welfare service that was “unique among the colleges.” Harling was one of several welfare advisers.

In addition, the central university has had a dedicated Sexual Violence Support service since 2017, with a team of advisers trained to handle complaints. And in October 2017, Cambridge launched a high-profile campaign – “Breaking the Silence” – designed to encourage students to report incidents of harassment and assault.

A key feature of that campaign was “a series of two hour workshops for all College and University staff regarding how to appropriately respond to a disclosure of sexual assault or rape”, alongside advice about how to navigate the university’s systems for investigating complaints.

Harling himself had driven some of these messages home. For Woman A, her only prior contact with him had been at what she called a “surreal” meeting during her first week at the college, where Harling had issued threats about what would happen to anyone who challenged the college and university’s hard line on sexual assault and consent. 

“In that talk, he portrayed himself as being very stern and, you know, taking sexual assault, sexual violence very seriously. You know, he gave what was intended to be, I think, an intimidating speech,” she said. 

“He gave this big speech and said, you know, if you do this, you are a rapist and we absolutely will have zero tolerance.” 

Sitting in the room with him that day, however, it still took some courage to spell out what each woman said had happened. One of the women says: “I was very, very explicit about what had happened as were the other girls. And I don’t think that there’s any way that he could have misunderstood what we were talking about. 

“I mean, we were very explicit – each of us – in describing exactly what had happened… this was not consensual and I want something to be done about that.” The three women outlined allegations of varying severity, ranging up to rape.

The normal response to this sort of testimony is to lay out the options available: either to go to the police, to complain to their college, or to complain to the university. But the women say that Harling did not present these as reasonable options.

All three women felt that, even though he had heard three clear testimonies of sexual misconduct, Harling discouraged them from going to the police. One would write that “Rev. Harling made it clear that he felt that what had happened was not serious enough to go to the police”. The others recalled him saying they lacked enough evidence for prosecution – and that the police was a “scary” option. 

Complaining through the college was presented as an unappealing option too. One of the women later wrote that they “were advised that the process of pursuing any form of disciplinary action would not be worth the emotional toll it would take on us.” Getting action from the college, one woman was left feeling, would require them to go to the police. 

One of the women would give testimony stating that Harling told them that they “should avoid College disciplinary action as the stress socially and mentally was too hard”. Harling also did not tell the women that they had the option of going to the central university to make their complaint. 

Harling disagrees with this characterisation of his position, stating he told them he would support them in making complaints to the police or college. Harling also denies the women’s account of what he proposed they do.

According to the three women, Harling proposed that the women take their own course of action against the man who they said had assaulted them. One of them wrote:

“[We were] advised by Rev. Harling that the most effective action that we could take would be some form of vigilante justice. We were told that the thing that would most affect [D] was ‘laughing at him’.”

Woman C corroborated this account:

“While Tim [Harling] was very sympathetic in our conversation, he left us with little practical advice. He told us that there was no point seeking legal action as we didn’t have enough evidence, and that we should avoid college disciplinary action as the stress socially and mentally was too hard. We spoke at length about how we wanted to find a way that would make [D] change his behaviour, and Tim [Harling] told us to ‘break his pride’ by making jokes about him, telling friends around college about his treatment of us, and excluding him socially, all to ‘take away his power’.”

The women thought this suggestion was strange. Woman A told Tortoise: “I left that meeting with the other girls and we were like, ‘Wow, that was a bit much wasn’t it?’ Like, we’re not going to publicly humiliate the guy…” 

But the women wanted to make sure that the same things they had alleged did not happen to any more women in the college community. So two of the three did take on one of Harling’s suggestions: following what they took to be his advice, they decided that they would tell their peers in college their allegations against this other student. 

After their first meeting with Harling, Woman A and Woman B began to knock on their peers’ doors to explain what they said they had experienced. Women A told Tortoise: “It’s so scary when you’re speaking to people, some of whom… I felt were closer to him than to me. And you’re speaking to people and it’s hard not knowing what people’s reactions will be and what they’re saying once you’ve left the room, you know?”

The three women also said that Harling had, furthermore, suggested that, if further women came forward with similar allegations against D, the calculus could change in favour of an investigation. Woman A emailed Harling to inform him that, when following what they took to be his advice, other people had raised other cases: 

Hi Tim, I wanted to relay something which was said to me today which I found very concerning. When telling a friend about the situation she said that two of her friends have had similar experiences with [Man D], but didn’t tell me any names or specifics, aside from that one is a member of Queens’ and the other isn’t. She didn’t give an indication of whether those people would be willing to speak to you but is telling them everything

Woman A and Woman B also asked Reverend Harling to inform D about the allegations they had made against him – allegations he would furiously deny. Harling said in an email to A and B that if they “felt any negative sentiment” from Man D once he had been informed, then matters would be “escalated as disciplinary”. 

A few days later, Woman A had another meeting with Harling to discuss how things were going. Both she and Woman B had some difficult interactions with Man D after he’d been told about them. In that meeting, Woman A asked Harling to ensure that he would not be allowed to contact her or speak to her – a so-called “no-contact agreement”. 

In contemporaneous text messages, seen by Tortoise, Woman A referred to her understanding after that meeting was that there would be disciplinary consequences if Man D continued to speak to her: “if he [D] contacts me again he gets in shit with the dean,” she said. “If he does it repeatedly then he will get kicked out of accommodation.” 

Similarly, Woman B corresponded with Harling about Man D contacting her. Her understanding was that Woman A “want[ed] no contact from [him] in any form” but for her own part, her request was different, she said she would tolerate being “civil” with him “in social situations”. Woman C felt she could simply avoid him.  

Harling asked the women to leave it with him: he would speak to the man on their behalf to arrange this understanding. 

A few months later, after the summer break, the students returned to university. And it was only then that it became clear things were not quite as they had looked.

First, Man D did make contact with Woman A. These interactions left her feeling distressed; she felt she had to leave the company of her friends when Man D was around. During one of these incidents – in the college bar – a friend of Woman A took Man D aside and asked him to leave, citing the no-contact order. 

The college did not reprimand Man D for approaching Woman A, but they did call this friend into a disciplinary meeting with the Dean, a professor of law called Martin Dixon. 

As these events unfolded in the first weeks of term, A was increasingly unhappy with how her case had been handled by Harling and the college. She met with him to discuss her concerns and to tell him that she wanted to try to bring a formal complaint against D. This time, Harling sent her to the Dean, who is responsible for student discipline. 

At first, Woman A met with the Deputy Dean, Dr Janet Maguire. She explained the backstory to the meeting – and set out to the Deputy Dean her account of what happened. According to an official transcript of the meeting she said: “We were left to get on with it ourselves, we have tried to deal with it ourselves and become vigilantes”. 

Maguire responded by expressing disbelief that the women would have been left to take matters into their own hands. The official transcript of the meeting records her saying: “That would not have been our intention. I am certain that no-one in College would want to leave you in a situation where you are vulnerable. I really believe that there was never an intention to leave you on your own.”

Woman A also expressed her distress at being contacted by Man D when she had asked Harling to enforce a no-contact agreement the year before. “The Welfare Team said they will make sure if he speaks to me there will be action taken,” she told Maguire. 

But when Dixon returned from a trip and took over the case from his deputy, he did not appear sympathetic to Woman A’s concerns. Instead he informed her that contrary to what she had believed, there had in fact been no ‘no-contact agreement’ and that it was only now, months later, that it could be said to have any “disciplinary force”. 

The discussions last May were welfare based, and as such the outcome did not have any disciplinary overtones at all. Indeed, the welfare team have no power to impose disciplinary sanctions. I understand that you raised concerns that the College appears to have done nothing about D. In one sense, that is entirely true: the College could do nothing in a disciplinary sense because it was not dealt with as a disciplinary matter.” 

In a statement, the college told Tortoise that this division between welfare and discipline is “publicised in all of our documentation and is well known, and valued, by our students.” But this distinction between Harling’s role as a welfare officer and the Deans’ roles as disciplinary officers was not explained to the women in these terms. On the contrary: Woman A claims she was specifically reassured that there would be disciplinary consequences if Man D continued to seek to speak to her. 

Harling’s later statements on this point were contradictory: he would later annotate a statement by Woman A, accepting that he had given an “assurance that if [D] persisted in contacting me, the college would take disciplinary action”. He would, however, also claim that he advised that at that point they “should involve the College Deans who could make a formal request for no contact”.

It also emerged, however, that Harling had not attempted to implement a no-contact agreement, as the women understood it. When the complaints were made, Harling wrote to Man D telling him that the women had requested “no personal one-to-one contact,” although he told Man D that “they are obviously willing to be civil in groups of friends you share”. 

Indeed, Harling made no indication in his correspondence with Man D that if he approached Woman A, he would face disciplinary consequences. Instead, he told Man D that the “direct problem” of their complaints about his behaviour would “[go] away” if Man D avoided speaking with her. 

Furthermore, despite the extreme gravity of the women’s complaints, it transpires that Harling did not make any notes during the meetings he had with them in the spring. He made no record of their accounts – nor of his proposed remedy. The whole thing was kept informal.

At this point, Woman A was determined to pursue a complaint against D with the college. But before she could even submit her paperwork, she learned that Man D had lodged a complaint against her – and others – with the university. Because she followed the advice that she believed Harling had given her – to tell her peers about Man D – she was now being accused of bullying and harassment by the man who she alleged had sexually assaulted her.

The bullying claim was intolerable for Woman A: “The irony of that is that harassment – i.e. bullying – is the same policy as sexual harassment and sexual assault. And so I was having to read these booklets saying what to do if you’ve been accused of sexual abuse or harassment.”

A was seriously distressed by the complaint against her. She was having trouble concentrating on her studies and her mental health was deteriorating rapidly. She was advised to take a year out from university as it would be too difficult to go through the university’s disciplinary process and to study at the same time: “The university’s disciplinary procedure was described to me in quite horrific detail. It was sold to me as being essentially, soul-crushingly awful. It simulates a real court. The standard of evidence is beyond reasonable doubt. He [D] will have a university appointed lawyer that’s going to grill you like in an actual trial.” 

There was little choice but to leave university for a year, says Woman A: “I really had to take the year out at that point. It was just too overwhelming. I hadn’t done any work.” This sense of betrayal left her devastated: “I’d just lie there and ask ‘why are you trying to kill me?’” she said.

The college, in her view, was trying to make this problem, and her, go away: “I think because I had gone into it in such good faith. I’d been so honest, not just about [what happened with D], but about other traumatic things that happened to me in order to assist them with going about the business of delivering justice. And instead of doing that it just felt like they had gone through everything that I’d said, picked out all my weaknesses, and then were trying to use them in order to make me disappear.”

She was also upset to learn that the college – and Harling, in particular – had given Man D pastoral support and advice as he made his complaint. The college’s position is that Harling and the deans offered support to this man and advised him on his options, as they would for any student.

Woman A left Cambridge for a spell, feeling downtrodden and hopeless, with the threat of the bullying complaint hanging over her. But none of what she had been warned about with that disciplinary case ever happened. 

Less than a month after Woman A decided to take a leave of absence, D’s bullying complaint against her was dropped by the university. 

By then, her time at Cambridge had already been derailed.

At this point, two of the women – Woman A and Woman C – decided to pursue cases against Harling through the college’s complaints system. “I feel that Rev. Harling’s advice was both inaccurate and irresponsible.”, wrote Woman A. “Having fully processed the assault that happened to me and taking into account this term’s events, I seriously question the advice we were given” said Woman C.

The three women’s accounts of the first meeting are consistent. But Harling’s recollection was quite different. He wrote:

“I would like to make it absolutely clear that I did not, have not and never would: 

  1. Discourage any student from going to the police
  2. Discourage any student from taking disciplinary action against another
  3. Suggest emotional toll to be too great to pursue what is right. 
  4. Advise action that involved “vigilante justice”, bullying, intimidation, defaming of character, “laughing at” other students.”

Lord Eatwell, then the President of the College, investigated the women’s complaints. While he acknowledged that there had been failures in the welfare support offered to them, he found that Harling was not “at fault” for his conduct. 

Only one admission of failure was made: Harling accepted that he did not “specifically explain” the option available to “make a complaint to the University about [D]’s conduct.” It had not been his “understanding” at the time of the women’s initial meeting that taking their complaint to the university was an option despite this having been publicised widely in the University’s Breaking the Silence campaign.

Even in this first report, there were hints of problems with Harling’s approach. Eatwell did recommend “improvements to how the College signposts the various options and procedures for students.” He also specifically recommended that multiple staff members attend meetings on this topic, and that notes should be taken. 

There was no formal procedure under which the women could appeal the outcome of Lord Eatwell’s investigation. However, the college president allowed the women to appeal for him to “think again” about his decision. 

Lord Eatwell convened an appeals committee consisting of three academics from the College. This committee found that Harling had indeed given deficient advice to the women.

In their report on the matter they stated that “even on the facts admitted by Rev. Harling, the advice provided by Rev. Harling was incomplete, and not consistent with best practice”. They also noted a claim that he had previously referred students to the university processes – so his advice may have been “inconsistent”, as well.

They were likewise disturbed by the fact that Harling, who they style as “the College’s Head of Welfare and designated Sexual Harassment Officer”, admitted he was “not aware of the ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaign.” That admission, they found “implies incompetence and failure in an important welfare issue.” They also noted that “it is unclear why once Rev. Harling became ‛aware that there is an option to complain to the University under the Breaking the Silence campaign’, this option was not immediately communicated to the complainants.”

The college’s current account of these findings, issued in a statement to Tortoise, however, was that the “allegations of inappropriate or incomplete advice” were “investigated… and dismissed”.

The college’s public position is now also markedly different from earlier findings on other points. In a statement to Tortoise, the college said that “The welfare and disciplinary functions of the College are entirely separate and this is publicised in all of our documentation.”

The College’s internal review of the case in 2019 actually recommended that the college needed to improve its guidance, and should make it “explicit that there are parallel (and separate) pathways for welfare and disciplinary processes.” 

In its statement to Tortoise, the college stated: “It is a matter of great regret that the College has to be so clear, but it rejects as untrue the account of events put forward in respect of dealings with [Harling].” 

But the review panel’s finding was they struggled to make determinations in “the absence of contemporaneous records of conversations”. And, on the core issue of whether Harling had advised the women to go door-knocking, they found that there was evidence consistent with the women’s story – but not enough to be sure.

An “email exchange did provide evidence that Rev. Harling was aware that the complainants were taking some action on their own, but it is impossible to ascertain whether this would amount to knowledge of action that could be specifically classified as ‛vigilante action’.” 

Lord Eatwell’s final determination of the position to Woman A was that there was “not sufficient evidence upon which to reach a conclusion that Reverend Harling encouraged, supported or condoned anyone in taking inappropriate actions towards the other student.” 

Lord Eatwell also wrote: “Please let me assure you that you have done the College a great service in identifying various matters for the College which require significant further attention.” And, after Woman A consulted lawyers, Queens’ also paid Woman A a five-figure ex gratia sum as a settlement. 

In their statement to Tortoise, the college also said: “Students are supported when considering whether to make a formal complaint to the police, College disciplinary authorities or University authorities.” The college also said the women in this case also retain the right “to make a disciplinary complaint either to the College or, with the College’s full support, to the police”. They are loath to take up the college’s offer of such help. 

In 2019-20, immediately after this case unravelled, the college also introduced a new note into the college’s handbook, creating a special exemption to their disciplinary rules for breaches of discipline that relate to “serious sexual or physical assault”.

In this section, which did not appear in the previous year’s edition, they noted that because of the difficulty inherent in these complaints: “the Dean will be unable to take the matter further in College until the accused student has been convicted by a court, or the accused student accepts full responsibility for the offence.” 

This set of rules would explicitly prevent students from bringing complaints like Woman A’s to the college – requiring them to go to the university or police.

Harling himself remains listed as one of the “Harassment and Assault Officers” for the College. Tortoise requested details of whether he has received further training. Both he and the college declined to answer.

The process run by the Queens’ was disastrous and distressing. But Woman A says: “My ideal situation would be the college wasn’t investigating, but that there were procedures in place, so that independent people with training in this specific area, you know, training regarding trauma and how that manifests, training regarding the legal side, you know, people who, for whom there could be no conflict of interest [were the ones investigating].” 

Cambridge is strange and unusual in many ways – but in this regard, it is like every other. Institutions fear adverse publicity – and academia does not attach prestige to either pastoral care or disciplinary roles. Furthermore, student bodies continually rotate and change: delay is a tactic that allows graduation to rid institutions of difficult cases. Incentives to avoid action are strong.

As Woman A said: “I don’t think that it is a good idea to ask institutions to investigate themselves. I don’t think that it works.”