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Sensemaker: Big Education’s big deal

Sensemaker: Big Education’s big deal

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US warned a Russian invasion of Ukraine could happen “any day now” as the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK said his country might drop its request to join Nato if it helped avoid a war.
  • Kurt Zouma, a footballer at West Ham in east London, was withdrawn from a weekend fixture after footage of him kicking his cat went viral. 
  • Two black competitors – Jamaica’s Ben Alexander and Erin Jackson of the US – dominated coverage of day ten of a Winter Olympics trying to fix its image as too white.

Big Education’s big deal

 US universities have paid out more than $2.3 billion in the past five years to settle complaints of sexual misconduct and assault by staff members, sports coaches and doctors. The victims number in the thousands.

The awards dwarf those offered victims of sexual abuse at UK universities. That doesn’t mean they’re too big, that the institutions can’t afford them, or that there won’t be more like them – especially if universities generally turn out to have covered up abuse for decades.  

So far this year: 

  • Last week UCLA agreed to settle a case involving allegations from 203 women of sexual abuse by Dr James Heaps, a gynaecologist who trained at UCLA, taught in the medical school for 29 years and worked as a consultant to the university between 2014 and 2018. Many of the allegations relate to misconduct in clinical settings. The university has agreed to a total payout of $243.6 million, with each plaintiff getting $1.2 million. 
  • Last month the University of Michigan agreed to pay $490 million to a group of over 1,000 people who say they were sexually abused by Dr Robert Anderson, who worked at the university in various positions from 1966 until 2003, including as a doctor for several sports teams and director of the university’s health service. 

Earlier settlements include:

  • $1.1 billion paid out by the University of Southern California to settle two lawsuits brought by more than 700 women alleging sexual misconduct by a gynaecologist who worked at the student health clinic. 
  • $100 million paid by Penn State to 40 people who alleged they were sexually abused by the football coach Jerry Sandusky. 
  • $500 million paid by Michigan State to more than 300 people who said they were abused by Larry Nassar, a physician to the university and US gymnastics teams.  

Why so big? They’re not. Payouts of more than $1 million per plaintiff are rare and in any case have been approved by courts on the basis that their purpose is to compensate for years of physical and psychological harm. No amount of money can make up for that. 

Who pays? Most settlements are funded by a mix of liability insurance and university funds – and as settlements grow in number and size, so does pressure from insurers for universities to show proof of robust anti-abuse policies to keep their cover. Universities are also having to make public promises they won’t use tuition fees or gifts to cover settlements.

The UK comparison. British payouts tend to be much smaller. A claimant might get anything from £7,000 to £75,000 depending on the harm experienced, says Georgina Calvert-Lee of the law firm McAllister Olivarius. She says UK calculations “don’t really acknowledge the severity of mental health illnesses,” linked to such cases. It’s a problem in UK litigation generally: mental illnesses aren’t considered as serious as physical injuries and brain damage even if they’re debilitating.

Actual and potential lost earnings are taken into account in both jurisdictions but UK payouts are unlikely to rise to US levels. Is that fair? Calvert-Lee says not: “In a global world, you can easily have a perpetrator committing the same acts in the UK and the US. And it seems to me absolutely wrong that the claimant in the US can recover so much more by way of damages.”

US lawsuits and the acknowledgement of harm that the settlements represent are forcing universities to clean house, and encouraging victims to come forward. Last week three graduate students sued Harvard, alleging that the university chose not to investigate their 2017 complaints of sexual misconduct by a professor. The university disputes their allegations but if recent cases are any guide that is unlikely to be the end of it. 

In the investigation of campus abuse, as Tortoise has shown, the UK is playing catch-up.

Every day this week at 1.45pm GMT on Radio 4 you can listen to the series Tortoise produced for the BBC on the tank debt that has stood in the way of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release. In Episode 1, Tortoise Editor Ceri Thomas explores the origins of the debt, the apparent corruption which surrounded the deal which created it, and its long, difficult legacy.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

UK-EU trade slump
Jacob Rees-Mogg, the new UK Brexit opportunities minister, will be scratching his head over official figures showing UK exports to EU countries have fallen in value by £20 billion in the past 20 months. Covid can be blamed for some but not most of this. Broadly speaking there are therefore two possible explanations: either Brexit is the root cause or it’s not. Since one of these is not open to Rees-Mogg we should expect the usual mental gymnastics and appeals for free trade deals of the kind the EU used to negotiate by the dozen on the UK’s behalf. Other interesting findings from the Office for National Statistics: while exports to the EU fell by 12 per cent last year, non-EU exports fell too, by 6 per cent. And non-EU imports exceeded those from the EU for the first time since 1997. Perhaps that’s the natural order of things. Far too soon to tell.

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Shift on Elgin Marbles?
Greek observers of the Parthenon sculptures in their temporary London digs are increasingly persuaded the sculptures could be coming home. The word “temporary” is used here dispassionately to note that the 200 years the marbles have spent in the British Museum is a blip in their 2,400-year lifespan. The new optimism in Athens stems from the use last week of the word “normally” by a British Museum spokesperson in a conversation with the Ta Nea newspaper. As in: any other institution “normally” acknowledges the BM’s ownership of anything it accepts on loan. Asked three times by Ta Nea if such an acknowledgement remained a precondition for any loan of the Parthenon sculptures to Greece, the spokesperson declined to answer. So in principle Greece might be able to “borrow” the sculptures without saying the BM owned them, which it refuses to do. Which could be huge.

Do watch our ThinkIn from last Thursday on the Parthenon Sculptures, and whether they should be returned.

New things technology, science, engineering

Turkish killer drones
Ukraine has not been given the Pentagon’s most fearsome drones, but still hopes to be able to attack Russian hardware from the air without risking its pilots’ lives. Enter the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 killer drone. It can stay airborne at 25,000 feet for 24 hours and release smart munitions 12 miles from their targets – which is over the horizon for a typical tank. Genuine question: if Russian troops are ordered to attack Ukrainians whom they have been told are their ethnic and cultural cousins, will they obey?

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Global health fund
In October, the G20 will head to the island paradise of Bali for its annual summit. Top of the agenda for the current presidency holders, Indonesia, is a global health fund. President Joko Widodo first raised the idea at the World Economic Forum in Davos last month and it was pushed again on Friday by his health minister, who told reporters the lesson of Covid has been that “there is no global health institution that has enough power or money to jump in and help; you are basically on your own”. Much like the International Monetary Fund, the proposed body would be set up to gather funds from donor nations and redistribute them as needed – but specifically in response to future health crises. It’s an unsubtle dig at the World Health Organisation’s efforts to rally donations and fund responses to the pandemic. The WHO’s own Bruce Aylward, who coordinated the Access to Covid-19 Tools (ACT) Accelerator initiative, said last week that “the global response is running on fumes”. 

covid by numbers

1.27 million – lives Covax estimates it’s efforts could save in 2022. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Saudi H2
Saudi Arabia is seeking to become the Saudi Arabia, as it were, of green hydrogen. Its expansive plans for a new green city at Neom in the northwest, near the Gulf of Aqaba, include a plant designed to produce 650 tonnes of green H2 a day. To be green it has to be produced by splitting water into H2 and O2 with renewable electricity, which is an energy-intensive process and therefore very expensive – unless you can create a massive over-supply of wind and solar capacity to bring down the cost of its energy down close to zero. That is also on the Neom to-do list. Its location has a lot of wind and sun. The global H2 market, currently worth $150 billion a year, is expected to quadruple in size by 2050. How much of that ends up being green, and how much blue, grey and brown, from fossil fuels, remains to be seen. Ditto whether the Saudis can build a hydrogen fuel-cell car factory to use some of their hydrogen. That, too, is on the Neom list.  

The week ahead


14/2 – Boris Johnson starts leveling up tour in Scotland; High Court ruling on Rebekah Vardy’s libel claim against Coleen Rooney; hearings begin at inquiry into Post Office’s Horizon IT system, 15/2 Supreme Court hearing on legality of voter ID schemes in 2019 local elections, 16/2 – Stonewall to publish annual workplace equality survey, 17/2 – Unison Women’s Conference starts in Edinburgh, 18/2 – London fashion week begins; rapper Dizzee Rascal charged with assault 

14/2 – Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro visits Russia as German chancellor Olaf Scholz visits Ukraine; 55th session of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), 15/2 – Chinese lantern festival marks end of Lunar new year; six months since Taliban entered Kabul; Olaf Scholz visits Moscow, 16/2 – Nato defence ministers meet in Brussels; North Korea marks birthday of late leader Kim Jong-il, 17/2 – Russia, as current head of UN Security Council, holds meeting on Ukraine at the UN in New York; trial opens in Munich of Russian scientist accused of spying in Germany; EU-African Union summit, 18/2 – Hearing in Moscow on custodial sentence for Alexei Navalny’s brother, Oleg; 58th Munich Security Conference begins; Sydney gay and lesbian Mardi Gras, 20/2 – Closing ceremony for Beijing Winter Olympics, Daytona 500 race in Florida

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Ella Hill

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Neom.com

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