There is something morally disgusting that is going on in Nigerian universities. Academic staff members know about it but feel, in a strange way, that it is a part of the unquantifiable reward they are supposed to receive for their services to the university system. This kind of reasoning can only emanate from depraved minds.
Vice-chancellors and senior university administrators are aware of sexual harassment in their universities but they often offer their typical slap-on-the-wrist defences such as: “we are against it”, “our universities do not tolerate it”, “we have zero tolerance for randy academic staff who engage in sexual harassment of female students”, and “we have policies in place for dealing with the adventures of academic staff who have strong desires for sex with their students”. Others even go so far as to offer provocative and insensitive comments such as “we are not aware of it” or “the practice is not prevalent” or “we hear of allegations but female students have not given us unimpeachable evidence of how, where, and when they were victimised”.
Sexual harassment of female students by academic staff of universities is not new. But the practice is growing and becoming widespread. Indeed it has gained notoriety in recent years. Worryingly, it is eating deep into the moral foundations of our society. Every year, the nation is regaled with sordid tales of university lecturers sexually abusing female students. Only a few female students have the courage to speak out. In the cases that have emerged from some universities, brave female students serve as the sole vehicle through which improprieties by academic staff are being exposed.
In April this year, news broke of the circulation of an audio recording of a conversation between a professor at the Obafemi Awolowo University (QAU), Ile-Ife, and a female student in which the professor blatantly told the student that she had to give in to his sexual desires, if the student wanted to pass his course. No sooner did the news break in the public sphere than the university set up an investigation committee to examine the allegations. The contents of the audio-recorded conversation between the professor and the student were gross and most embarrassing.
A preliminary report submitted by the university’s investigation committee indicted the professor. Based on the report, the OAU moved quickly to discipline the professor. He was sent on an indefinite suspension because the university deemed his behaviour to be a form of moral transgression and a dereliction of his duty of care for his students.
If that incident was not enough to assail your sensibilities, how about the scandal that broke out at the University of Lagos (UNILAG) this year? In this particular case, a female student not only complained about being sexually harassed by a professor but took a step further to release nude photos of the man as her evidence. You could say female students are fighting back courageously and commendably. UNILAG’s vice-chancellor vowed in May this year that the university would thoroughly investigate the allegations and take prompt action as the institution, he said, had a zero tolerance policy for improprieties of the nature alleged by the female student. The nation is still waiting for the outcome of the investigation. Of course, there are many other cases that could not be relayed in this column owing to space constraints.
Universities are not set up to exploit and harass female students. Academic staff members are not hired to serve as sexual predators of female students whom they see as targets to satisfy their lewd and indecent sexual obsessions. University administrators must make the point clearly and vigorously that the fundamental rights of female students must be respected.
Any university, implicated or not in the frequent sex-for-marks scandals, should have in place strict policies and procedures that will serve as restraints against staff who engage in sexual harassment of female students. Sexual harassment is not entertainment. University academic staff must not deviate from their core objective of providing quality higher education to students. There is no place in universities for sleazy practices. It does not matter whether a handful of academic staff are involved in the criminal behaviour. It does not matter whether professors are the most culpable in the disreputable behaviour. It does not matter whether senior staff are the only ones implicated in these immoral practices. What is bad is bad and should not be tolerated.
The iniquitous practice must be condemned, punished severely, and eradicated. Some university staff engage in so many malpractices that ought not to exist. Apart from sexual harassment of female students, some university staff have previously been implicated in other forms of exploitation of students such as compelling students to buy handouts or lecture notes, abusing the rules that guide fair conduct of examinations, and inflation of grades for favoured students. These reprehensible behaviours are unpardonable, indefensible, and horrendous. In the end, it is the image of Nigerian universities that is tainted.
Apart from poor quality of teaching and research, apart from crumbling infrastructure and other facilities, Nigerian universities are decaying and so are the products of the universities. They graduate from the universities but their performances are no better than those who received half education.
Part of the reason why Nigerian universities have failed to deal forcefully with sexual harassment cases is the existing culture of mateship in which victims are shamed and humiliated while the offenders are rewarded and treated as untouchables. It is quite absurd how universities treat female students who are victims of sexual harassment. Female students who allege misconduct against university academic staff are abused, taunted, harassed, labelled, insulted, blamed, and scorned. It is this kind of experience that terrifies many victims of sexual harassment from coming forward.
The environment in the universities places the burden of proof of sexual harassment on female students. It is this skewed milieu that accounts for the silence of those abused female students who prefer to live with emotional scars and physical pain of abuse than confront a system that is heavily weighted against them. Above all, sexual harassment leaves on the victims that permanent mark of invasion of privacy, which the victims are unwilling to show to the public. There is nothing as fear-inducing in female students as being sexually abused by men supposedly obligated to mentor, teach, motivate, and guide them.
Female students consumed by the prevailing climate of fear in the universities opt to die several times in silence on the belief that it is better to soak up abuse of their human rights than to formally allege sexual misconduct against an academic staff member who is overwhelmingly protected by the university system. It is a strange system in which female students are found guilty of raising “false alarm” as they seek justice.
Why do Nigerian universities find it difficult and uncomfortable to investigate cases of sexual harassment in order to identify, discipline, and dismiss those crooked and morally depraved staff members who move about bragging about their right to behave and operate anyway they like within their university campuses?